Our first reading this morning comes from the Book of Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy is the fifth book of the Old Testament. It rehashes in a summary form the forty years that Israel spent in the desert after they had been freed from Egypt but before they entered into the Promised Land. Before wandering in the desert for forty years Israel had been in Egypt for 430 years. And in six short verses our first reading sums up what had happened in those years.
At the beginning the Jewish people enjoyed a place of privilege in Egypt, but for most of those 430 years they lived as slaves. They were maltreated and oppressed.
But then Deuteronomy reminds us that God brought the Israelites out of slavery. “With His strong right hand and outstretched arm, with terrifying power, with signs and wonders God freed the people.” One day they had no life, no future, no hope, and the next day God rescued them and gave them a future, gave them hope, and gave them their lives. And this wasn’t just a story that they read about; they lived it! They saw the Red Sea split! They ate the manna in the desert! They experienced God rescuing them in a way that seemed impossible to dream of. One day they were slaves and the next day they were free.
But then something happened. And what happened can be summed up in two words, “They forgot!” They forgot what had happened. They forgot where they had been. They forgot what God had done for them out of His great love. They forgot His faithfulness. They forgot His mercy. They forgot that they owed everything to Him. They forgot that all they had was a gift from Him.
And that brings us to the basket that we hear about in the first line. “The priest shall receive the basket from you and shall set it in front of the altar of the Lord, your God.” Moses tells the people that after they enter into the Promised Land, after the crops they plant bear fruit, they are to put the first fruits that grow in a basket and bring the basket and place it in front of the altar. And the ultimate point of this gesture is to remember. To call to mind that they have food, that they have land, that they have freedom, and that they are alive because God has chosen them as His very own. We have our own basket too where our first fruits are offered, although these days it’s in the form of currency that we offer.
So what does all of this have to do with Lent? The point of Lent in many ways is simply to remember. The praying, the fasting, the Stations of the Cross, and Adoration of the Eucharist help us to remember, because like the Israelites we too can all too often forget all that God has done for us. For many of us the temptation is to, either forget what God has done or to take it for granted. Just as the Israelites forgot about their dramatic rescue from tyranny and oppression we can often let the cares and distractions of the day take our minds off of all that Jesus has done.
And so the Church offers us these 40 days to remember, to remember the details of the single most important event in the history of the world. The Church calls us to remember, to think about, to pray with, and to stare at our Lord’s Passion, to take it all in – the agony in the garden, the scourging by the soldiers, the crowning with thorns, the ridicule and mockery that He endured, the carrying of the cross, the shedding of His blood, and finally His death on the cross, the price he paid – all so that you and I could be rescued not from some earthly tyrant like a Pharaoh, but from the devil, not from slavery to an earthly master, but from slavery to sin and death, and not so we could enter into an earthly Promised Land but heaven itself. And all of this simply because he loves you. St. Louis de Montfort once said that God brings into play more power and wisdom in leading a single soul to salvation than he used in creating the whole universe. That’s Divine love. I want to share a story I often told, I really like it. It’s an analogy to help us remember that we were bought at great cost. Our Lord gave his life for us, shedding every last drop of blood for us.
It was the 1800s and a young miner who had recently struck it rich in the gold rush was on his way back East. As he stopped in New Orleans to rest, he noticed a crowd of people gathering for some kind of event.
He approached the crowd and quickly learned they were there for a slave auction. He heard a gavel bang on wood and a man shouted, “Sold!” just as a middle-aged black man was taken away.
Next, a beautiful young black girl was pushed onto the platform and made to walk around so everyone could see her. The miner heard vile jokes and comments that spoke of evil intentions from those around him. The bidding began. Within a minute, because of her beauty, the bids surpassed what most slave owners would pay for a black girl. Finally, one man bid a price that was beyond the reach of the other. The girl looked down.
The auctioneer called out, “Going once! Going twice!”
Just before the final call, the miner yelled out a price that was exactly twice the previous bid, an amount that exceeded the worth of any man.
The crowd laughed. The miner opened up the bag of gold he had brought for the trip. The auctioneer shook his head in disbelief as he waved the girl over to him. The girl walked down the steps of the platform until she was eye-to-eye with the miner. She spat straight in his face and said through clenched teeth, “I hate you!”
The miner, without a word, wiped his face, paid the auctioneer, took the girl by the hand, and walked away from the still-laughing crowd.
Stretching out his hand, he said to the girl, “Here are your freedom papers.” The girl looked at the papers, then looked at him, and looked at the papers once again.
“You just bought me…and now, you’re setting me free?”
“That’s why I bought you. I bought you to set you free.”
The beautiful young girl fell to her knees in front of the miner, tears streaming down her face.
“You bought me to set me free! You bought me to set me free!” She said over and over. The miner said nothing. Clutching his muddy boots, the girl looked up at the miner and said, “All I want to do is to serve you, because you bought me and set me free!”
Our Lord rescued us, gave us a future, gave us hope, and gave us our lives. On Good Friday we were slaves but three days later on Easter morning we were set free. May we always live in gratitude, never forgetting the saving Passion of our Lord.
Let us be great Saints,
Rev. Christopher J. Ankley