The First Sunday of Lent
[Scripture Readings: Gen 2:7-9, 3:1-7; Rom 5:12-19; Mt 4:1-11]
In one of the recent “Blondie and Dagwood” comic strips, Blondie looks over her shoulder and says to Dagwood, “We have to have a serious talk.” Dagwood’s eyes grow large and his hair stands straight up. “What about?” he asks. “Oh, nothing,” Blondie says. “I just wanted to see your reaction.” Many of us react in the same way when someone says to us in a serious voice: “We need to have a serious talk.” Our body tenses up and our breathing becomes short. Someone wants to let us know about how our behavior and actions are affecting them; how we have slipped into patterns that are harmful, dysfunctional, or destructive. We didn’t see what was happening. We got used to the behavior and became numb and unfeeling about its consequences. I’ve always liked Dorothee Soelle’s definition of sin as “when life freezes over.” Things have become cold, unmoving, hard.
I think we can be going through the same experience when we enter again into the season of Lent. We tighten up inside into a defensive mode. We hear the “call to repentance” and want to deny that this applies to us. The Church and the liturgical season are leading us into a desert, into an altered environment of purple vestments, restrictions on our eating, and longer prayers. We are being asked to step back from some of the incessant movements and patterns of our lives, the demanding need to please and gratify ourselves. Robert Taft says that the asceticism of Lent “is nothing more than the necessary objectivity and distance from whatever is impermanent and secondary in the human endeavor; the self-discipline necessary to maintain true freedom and make the right choices; the destruction of egoism by the honest person who has the courage to stand naked before self and God.”
Maybe our defensiveness and resistance stem from the fact that we lack this objectivity, self-discipline, honesty, and courage. We think of Lent as being gloomy, negative, and depressing because it is questioning the priorities and values that are presently energizing our lives. The reaction and resistance we feel are coming from some level within us that we can’t see clearly, but where we sense that we are being brushed by the Spirit. There is a wound in our soul that we have learned to cope with and cover up. We live our lives over a fault, in the sense of being both a split and a responsibility.
The story of the Garden of Eden remains perennially fascinating for us because it is our story. We find ourselves acceding to the lure of objects outside ourselves “beautiful to look at and good for food” and hope to find in them our completion and identity. But the way we chose them deepens the sense of alienation we know. The serpent, the diabolus, is the one who splits, who divides. We know we have lost the capacity for wholeness, for spontaneity and integrity in what we do. The devil comes to Eve and says, “Let’s have a little talk.” He promises that their eyes will be opened and this indeed happens. They see that they are naked: exposed, vulnerable, separate, and incomplete in their very being. Desire has awakened in them the knowledge that they are separate and needy subjects. And now the cover-up begins. It starts with fig leaves and expands into full wardrobes, two cars, prestigious jobs. There is no end to the need to cover over the sense of aloneness and neediness. Our eyes are opened, but we look without seeing, without making connections and seeing connections.
A contemporary philosopher, David Levin, thinks that modern philosophy has discovered the real significance of crying. Tears, he says, open the veil of vision. They purify and dissolve the opaque cover over our eyes that keeps us from really seeing what we look at. They are the articulation of our being at a deep level of vulnerability and neediness and they emerge from a matrix of nature where all things are connected. Of course, he seems ignorant of the long Christian tradition of compunction and the “gift of tears.” But he is right in acknowledging the role that tears and deep sorrow can have in opening our eyes to the solidarity as well as complicity that binds us together in our world.
In resisting the temptations in the desert, Christ opens our eyes to a new path leading to life. Our deepest needs are for openness, contact, and wholeness. We always live as needy persons in this world, but we chose to live and stand naked before God and our deepest self. Humility, patience, and loving surrender to the Father bring life which grows into eternal life. Power, pleasure, and possessions close our eyes to our true call to live in this world as children of God.
The First Sunday of Lent
[Cycle C Scripture Readings: Deut 26:4-10; Rom 10:8-13; Lk 4:1-13]
Reduce the number of applications. Paperwork will be kept to a minimum. Standards are set in place that are high and beyond the normal reach. “Only qualified persons need apply.” This statement has neatly set aside the vast armies of the unemployed who do not measure up to the challenge. Setting standards has usually been the principal task of any company or corporation that wants to compete in the aggressive world of commercial enterprise. If you are going to stay at the top, strategic planning is the initial priority.
In the Gospel today, Jesus is led by the Spirit into the desert where the forces of good and the forces of evil draw a line in the sand. Just as Moses was the qualified person to lead the people of Israel out of the bondage of Pharaoh and the land of Egypt, so Jesus is the qualified person to lead the human race out of the bondage of Satan who until then had such a tenacious grasp on anyone who would try to live a meaningful and upright life.
The first test was one of self-gratification. Adam was surrounded by trees of all kinds and yet failed to keep away from the fruit of the one he was commanded not to eat. And Jesus is asked to work a miracle in a place where no food was apparent. The second test had to do with possessions. Avarice is the backbone of a society that is insecure and acquisitive, while its armies of the night march and flounder in obscurity. And the third test had to do with defying the law of gravity, as though one in his pride could bring himself to do it. Immunity from the forces of nature is just another instance of self deception.
During this season of Lent, the Church offers us a threefold remedy for the ailments of self-indulgence, avarice and pride in one’s own accomplishments. For self-indulgence, there is the discipline of fast and abstinence. For avarice, it offers the duty of almsgiving as a sacrifice of praise. And against pride and self-reliance it points out the value of communal and personal prayer as a means of acknowledging and seeking God, the author of salvation. The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and the sacramental system of the Church are right at hand. Quality control will never be the same.
The First Sunday of Lent
[Scripture Readings: Gen 9:8-15; 1 Pt 3:18-22; Mk 1:12-15]
I have a niece who, about seven years ago, was given a doll house for Christmas, and it was quite a doll house: an amazingly detailed reproduction of a modern two story home, with tiny little Chippendale chairs and tables, chandeliers, and little woven rugs. Elyse’s grandmother, my mother, who had given her the gift, was still enough of a little girl herself, that she found the dollhouse fascinating, and was removing items one by one to have a closer look. But Elyse, already very much the sole proprietor of the house, didn’t appreciate her grandmother burglarizing the place, and started whining and pushing her hand away: “Nanny don’t! Don’t Nanny! Nanny! Amused by Elyse’s territorial behavior, her grandmother began mimicking her: “Nanny don’t! Don’t Nanny! Nanny!”, at which point, Elyse, looked up, pointed her finger at my mother and said: “Enough”. For a moment, the room got very quiet – and then everyone burst into laughter. There was such an uproar that people came in from the room next door to ask what happened.
Elyse’s presumption seemed to us absurd; something hilarious, but for just a moment, as we looked at her tiny little finger pointed at my mother, we were amazed; intuitively aware of the significance of that gesture. Elyse, at age five, and perhaps for the first time in her life, had conceived the fantasy of absolute power; that power which effects what it desires with a word. Elyse had seen her mommy use that gesture with impressive results. Was it possible that she herself might exercise absolute power? She would give it a try. When she did, she gave us all a good laugh. But if we recognized at once Elyse’s outrageous presumption, that is because we had each of us already discovered it in ourselves. Absolute power is in fact the recurring fantasy of all sinful humanity.
Of course, life teaches us every day that we do not enjoy absolute power.
We are, in fact, powerless in the face of all kinds of external changes and threats.
But, interestingly enough, this doesn’t seem to make the fantasy go away.
Instead, it becomes submerged, unconscious, and being unconscious gets projected on to things and people outside us. One of the people upon whom we project our fantasy of absolute power is God.
Now, you will say, “But certainly God does enjoy absolute power.” Yes – indeed he does, but if you listen to people describe the way God exercises this power, you can’t help notice that God looks an awful lot like us at our very worst.
Take this morning’s first reading about Noah and the great flood. Many people relate this story as an account of God losing His temper. Surveying the earth and seeing all the sins of the people, God gets exasperated; “fed up”; points his finger at the earth and says – “Enough.”, at which point nearly every man, woman, child, animal, and living thing on earth – perishes. God’s behavior, according to this description, doesn’t seem to differ too much from that of my five year old niece, except that when we think of God behaving this way, it doesn’t make us laugh. It makes us frightened. Is this terrifying picture of absolute destructive power, the Lenten meditation the church is offering us on this First Sunday of Lent? Not quite.
St. Peter tells us in the second reading that the story about the flood, is actually not intended to terrify us. He says the flood is actually a story – about baptism,
and that’s very interesting, because if the flood is a story about baptism, then it is not essentially an image of destructive power. Baptism does not destroy us.
There is a death that occurs in Baptism, but it is not the death of who we are. It
is precisely the death of all that prevents us from becoming who we are. Baptism is death to sin, and lies, and delusion, and fear, in order that we may be born again to what we are called to be, and enjoy life in abundance. “You are saved by this baptismal bath“, Peter says. By dying in this flood, you and I are given the inestimable gift of standing in the presence of God with an irreproachable con- science, and made sharers in Christ’s resurrection to eternal life. There is a vitally important lesson for us here concerning the exercise of absolute power: when absolute power is exercised by God, according to St. Peter, it changes death into life.
The technology of war we have developed in the United States, has earned us the title “super power”. Some members of the international community believe that at this moment in history, we exercise an almost absolute power in world affairs. In recent months President Bush has become fed up with Saddam Hussein and said: “Enough”. He seems now resolved to unleash the awesome power of the U.S military on Iraq, and rid the world of Saddam Hussein once and for all. And yet interestingly, our efforts to convince the world of our right to make war on Iraq, has left us looking like something less than a “superpower”. Much of the world community, remains quite unconvinced and adamantly opposed to our cause. Most interesting of all, the Vicar of Christ, Pope John Paul II, is steadfastly denying that we have a right to attack Iraq. Is it possible that God Himself is speaking to us through the Pope? If so, then in pursuing this war, we are pitting ourselves against the absolute power of God, and that doesn’t bode well for our foreign policy program. But if we want to be sure that God is on our side; if we want to align ourselves with Absolute Power Himself, then it seems to me we need only use our power the same way God uses His.
We have learned today that when God exercises His absolute power, the results are like a baptism. Sins are cleansed Innocence is restored. Death is changed into life. Is that what we intend to do in Iraq?
The First Sunday of Lent
[Scripture Readings: Deut 16:4-10; Rom 10:8-13; Lk 4:1-13]
Ten years ago Fr. Pius died. Many people went to him for confession. He liked to tell the story of three things we need to know about the devil’s temptations: first, what the devil tempts us to do; second, when the devil tempts us to do it; and third, how the devil he does it.
In the temptations of Christ the devil reveals his own greatest temptation — pride. One day, a few years after the conversion of Constantine, Abbot Pachomius called his monks together for an evening conference. As they gathered around him he said to Theodore, a young monk, “Stand here in the midst of the brethren and speak the word of God to us.” Some of the seniors were offended. They didn’t want to listen to this junior, so they got up to returned to their huts. But Pachomius said to them, “Do you not know by what means wickedness first entered the world, how the one who shone like the bright morning star fell from heaven through pride? Deliver yourselves, therefore, from your superiority for the beginning of wickedness is pride.”1
Lucifer, the angel of light, the most beautiful of all, desired to be like God. What God wanted to give him as a gift, this proud angel wanted to take as his right. Isaiah describes this sin of pride: “How you are fallen to the ground, O morning star, son of the dawn! How you are cast down … You said in your heart, ‘I will scale the heavens; above the stars I will set up my throne, … I will be like the Most High!’ Yet down to the nether world you go, to the depths of the pit,” (Is. 14:12-14). Like Adam and Eve cast out of the earthly paradise, Lucifer, the first one to commit sin, was cast out of the heavens. St. John describes his fall: “The huge red dragon, the ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, … was thrown down, and his angels with him. … Its tail swept away a third of the stars in the sky and hurled them to the earth,” (Rev. 12:9). Instead of becoming like God, Lucifer became Satan, God’s adversary. He lost all his beauty. Dragging his followers down with him, they became like terrifying beasts—dragons breathing fire, roaring lions, venomous serpents.
Jesus was led by the Spirit into the Judean wilderness to struggle with this ancient Adversary on his own ground. These two great powers squared off face to face. What did Satan tempt Jesus to do? To be proud, to show off his divine power: “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” That’s what Satan would do if he were like God. The whole world would know it, you can be sure of that. When did Satan tempt Jesus? When he was weak from hunger. How the devil did he do it? By making it appear so good. Would it be wrong to make a little loaf of bread after fasting for forty days? That’s hardly gluttony. But this temptation is not about food for Christ’s body. It’s about showing off his divinity. What Jesus would not do out of pride he will later do out of compassion, multiplying bread for the hungry, changing water into wine for a newly married couple, and changing bread into his body and blood to share his divine life with us.
In his second struggle with Jesus, Satan gives in to his own greatest temptation and repeats his original sin of pride, “All this will be yours if you worship me.” What did the devil tempt Jesus to do? To give to Satan what belongs to the Father. When Satan fell, a symbolic third of the angels fell with him, serving him rather than God. In the Garden of Eden, Satan’s temptation of Adam of Eve was not about food, but about who to believe and obey: himself or God. They chose to believe the serpent, giving to Satan the faith and obedience they should have given to God. When did the devil tempt Adam and Eve and Jesus? When they were alone, by themselves, free to make their own choices. How the devil did he do it? By making it appear such a small thing. What’s so bad about eating a little apple or making a simple genuflection? But this temptation is not about apples or bodily gestures, it is about giving Satan the honor that belongs to God. Adam and Eve honored the devil by believing him. Jesus honored the Father by not kneeling before Satan’s pride. Later he will kneel before his apostles and wash their feet to teach them humility, to serve one another out of love for God.
In his third struggle with Jesus, Satan urged him to test God’s love for a beloved child. What did he tempt Jesus to do? “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for he will command his angels to support you lest you dash your foot against a stone.” In the beginning Lucifer was a beloved child of God. But he put God’s love and freedom to the test. Is an infinitely good God really free to give freedom, to let a beloved child choose evil and its consequences? Lucifer used his freedom to be forever proud with all its consequences, and suffered the loss of freedom to ever choose good. Jesus chose what is good, “You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.” When did Satan test Jesus? When he was in the Temple, his Father’s house. Would he not be safe there? Wouldn’t his Father have to protect him there in the holy city, in the house where he dwells? And how the devil did he do it? By using the Word of God against God. Proud Satan could not accept the humble, suffering God of the Scriptures, a God able to suffer the freedom of creatures to test and reject him, a God who could hang on the cross and die.
Satan is proud, as we often are. Disciples of a holy rabbi came and said to him, “We are afraid that evil is pursing us.” He replied, “Don’t worry, you are not humble enough for it to pursue you. For the time being, you are still pursuing it.” As a young novice I once went to confession and said I couldn’t think of anything sinful that I had done since my previous confession. Father replied, “Oh, you can’t see the forest because the trees are in the way.” How right he was. In his old age Fr. Pius became hard of hearing. After confessing my sins to him one day he replied, “I didn’t hear a word you said, but I suppose it’s nothing serious.” After he died some priests who regularly went to Fr. Pius for confession lamented, “Where are we going to find another deaf confessor?” Isn’t it pride that keeps us from going to confession, and makes us ashamed to reveal our sins and ask forgiveness? Let us use our freedom to choose humility and gratitude as beloved children of God. Or, would we rather be one of God’s proud adversaries?
1 Pachomian Koinonia I, The Fist Greek Life of Pachomius, # 77. Translated and edited by Armand Veilleux, Cistercian Studies Series 45.