I wasn’t thinking of Lent when I scheduled our annual baking day in the old wood-fired oven. The home we meet in was originally a boarding school, built in 1830 just as the side-flue oven was invented. The 7’ deep, brick-lined oven heated by a fire in an adjoining chamber provided ample room to bake the bread needed to feed 60 hungry students.
Each year, a dozen friends and family troop in with bowls of home-made dough to hone their baking skills. Soup bubbles on the stove while cheese and butter and fruit stand at the ready. It takes all our skill and attention to keep the right amount of fire going, and every loaf presents its own challenge. But by the end of the day, we’ve feasted on everything from crackers and focaccia, to crusty sourdough and multi-grain loaves, to blackberry pie—and there are piles of loaves wrapped to go home.
I left that feast yesterday feeling full and content and very happy. Delicious food from hard work with good friends . . . it doesn’t get much better than this! Then out of nowhere, “man does not live on bread alone” popped into my head.
And I thought, it does get better. There’s more! Being filled with food and fellowship, good as it is, is not enough. And if we let those things over-satisfy our hearts, we miss out on the food that gives eternal life. That’s why we fast for forty days. To enter the desert with the Lord, to get into a place of longing that’s long enough and intentional enough that we can use it (with his help!) to refocus our desires in his direction.
I’m fascinated by the second half of that quote from Deuteronomy, the unsaid second half of the line the very hungry Jesus uses to rebuff the devil when he tempts him to turn stones to bread. “Man does not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” (See Deuteronomy 8:2-3). How does that apply to me? I get that bread is not enough. But what does it mean to live by the words of God? We can learn a lot from the mass readings today, the first Sunday of Lent (year C), all of which focus on living by the Word.
The gospel: Luke 4:1-13
The gospel reading is that very scene in the desert. It’s interesting that the Lord defeats Satan by the Word . . . yet the devil uses the same Word to tempt Jesus. Clearly it’s not enough to have an arsenal of random verses ready to throw at the devil when temptation comes our way; any more than stashing bread in the cupboard staves off hunger. Jesus knew more than catchphrases, he knew more than words. He knew them completely, as the word of God, and he lived by that Word.
What does it mean to live by the word of God? Just as you have to eat bread to live by it, you must eat the word of God to live by it: you must listen to and read it, meditate on it, allow it to sink in until it becomes part of you and helps to form your thoughts and actions.
But there’s more than that. When I look at the readings chosen to accompany this gospel, it is reference to our words that stands out. Taken together and read in light of the gospel, the readings suggest that an important part of living by the Word is declaring it out loud.
The first reading: Deuteronomy 26:4-10
In the first reading, Moses tells the people (who have been wandering 40 years in the desert) that when they enter the promised land and offer the first fruits of their produce to the Lord, they must declare—out loud—the way God heard their cry in slavery and brought them out of Egypt and gave them the land. Saying it out loud is a lesson in gratitude, but it also is a very practical way to help them remember and hold fast to the fact that God sees their plight and listens when they call and is not only incredibly powerful and able to save, but has done so in the past. He has proven himself good. Don’t forget it!
In the same way, repeating out loud the ways God has acted for our good and saved us in the past (not only in the Exodus and on the Cross but in our lives) is a way we can “live by” the Word. Repeating it etches it on our memory. Saying it out loud helps make it real. Both strengthen us for life’s battles, as becomes apparent in the psalm:
The Responsorial Psalm: 91:1-2, 10-15
Psalm 91 might be the best-known psalm among Catholics today, thanks to the popularity of the song “On Eagles’ Wings.” When we read part of it today as a responsorial psalm, the part that we say (“Be with me, Lord, when I am in trouble”) provides focus and a bridge from the first reading to the Gospel. Psalm 91 is an obvious choice for this Sunday, as it provides the context Satan left out when he told Jesus to throw himself from the Temple because angels would save him. The parts he left out (but which you can be sure Jesus knew) are crucial to understanding the promise: Read the whole thing and you’ll see it’s not given to just anybody, but to “you who dwell in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty”; to the one who clings to God, “acknowledges my name,” and calls upon him. It’s given to the one who “says to the Lord, ‘My refuge and fortress, my God in whom I trust.”
The person who has this living relationship with God, who lives with and clings to him closely, is confident in God’s protection because he knows what God has done and who he is. The knowledge is so much a part of him, it comes out in his words and actions. He will surely throw himself on God when in danger; but knowing God as he does, he’s not likely to test God’s faithfulness by leaping off a cliff!
The second reading: Romans 10:8-13
The second reading also focuses on the word of God: “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart.” Why is a word in one’s mouth, if not to speak it? “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord,” the reading continues; “one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. […] everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” Surely that it comes from the heart is important, too. The words are “heartfelt,” truly meant.
We don’t live just by eating bread and allowing it to give us physical strength. We “eat” God’s word as well—the living Word in the Eucharist and the written Word of Scripture. We “live by it” by allowing it to penetrate and transform us, to the point that we become what we eat: a living expression of that Word in our words and our lives. It is then that the word becomes that sword of the Spirit that helps us “stand against the wiles of the devil” (see and meditate on Ephesians 6:10-20. It’s a great passage to take to heart!).
This Lent, as you enter the desert of temptation with Jesus at your side, consider how you might eat of his word with intent, proclaim and live by it. If you’re looking for suggestions, you might find some in one of the posts listed below.
Blessings on you as you live by the bread of the Word!
© 2019 Sarah Christmyer
- CREATE YOUR OWN DESERT FOR LENT… and seek Christ in his Word
- SCRIPTURE & SONGS TO THE RESCUE
- GOD WANTS TO SPEAK TO YOU: How to Hear Him
- HEARING GOD’S WORD IN THE WILDERNESS
- THIRSTING FOR GOD (a series on how the Psalms teach us to reach out in thirst to the One who can truly satisfy)