1 SUNDAY LENT 2013 C
This past Wednesday we came forward to receive the mark on our foreheads, the mark of ashes. We so much want to make a difference, to leave our mark. Yet we know we die and go to ashes. Indeed we are a creature among creatures.
The preeminent human temptation is to escape or repress the truth of our frailty. We don’t die, we pass on. I have been asked to preside at “A Celebration of Life” next week. We avoid the desert, the loneliness, the loss of familiar support, the grand stillness. If we go into the wilderness, we are afraid that we will be reminded of the great hunger.
We keep ourselves ceaselessly preoccupied, that we might avoid the pain of reality. We need not pay attention to the terrible precariousness of our condition. We need not face the question of our absolute poverty. Ashes.
We enter into lent today with the gospel story of Christ being tempted in the desert. He did not distract himself from the poverty of his human condition. The desert is always a place of trial because it is a place of faith. In the desert one must rely on the providence of God. The desert is the place where one is stripped of ones own resources. The desert is a tremendous symbol in scripture for the place of conversion.. the place of decision.
Somehow there is value and meaning to temptation. It is a test of love, a moment of choice.Notice where it was that the Spirit led Jesus—not into the city or the market place, but into the desert. . Jesus was “led by the Spirit into the desert . . . to be tempted.” The desert is a place of purification. We walk into the desert called by God. It is the Spirits invitation. It is a call to a new freedom and a promised land. The desert is a gift because it suspends us in a moment of time between our past and our future; between what we have experienced and what we have been promised.
In that desert, in the quiet conscience, we hear the voice of Satan calling us back to the familiar, the past, the ordinary; back to Egypt where our lives were in bondage; enslaved in so many ways. But in the quiet of the desert, we hear the voice of God with new clarity inviting us to a promised land, a new way of relating to our family, new priorities with our time, a fuller life.
But this fuller life of milk and honey cannot be reached without the gift of faith. Faith demands that I live not from what I have experienced but from what I have been promised.
One does not stay in the desert. It is a place of journey. It is a place of few resources. It demands courage to cross.
The way the Spirit invites us to enter this desert experience is the way Christ entered it; in prayer, listening to the voice and invitation of God; in fasting, knowing that we cannot live on bread alone; in almsgiving, giving evidence that our security is not in what we own but in what we share.
All temptations have to do with camouflaging human weakness. Each temptation put to Christ by the devil involved some misguided personal gain. The temptations Jesus underwent were to escape from the mission of his humanity, to deny our dependent condition. The temptation was to dodge the mortality he embraced in the womb of Mary. Let him be everything but human.
Rather than just seeing them as three consecutive temptations happening almost simultaneously at a particular moment, we should perhaps see them as three key areas where Jesus was tempted to compromise his mission during his public life. They were not just passing temptations of the moment but temptations with which he was beset all through his public life.
The temptations of Jesus occur again and again at various stages in his life, right up to and especially at those last hours in the garden and on the Cross. We can often grow discouraged because we have to face temptations over and over. We are often embarrassed that we confess the same again and again. Each of us has sins that we love. We don’t want to give them up. They are the compensation we take to sooth the pain of our frailty. Yet our pilgrim life here on earth cannot be without temptation for it is through temptation that we make progress and it is only by being tempted that we come to know ourselves.
But this is a dangerous exercise. We need training to cope with temptation. Like an athlete we must be careful to expect a little more of ourselves than yesterday. As we find the strength to choose the good at this moment of temptation we grow in virtue, the habit of spiritual wellness. We rely on the grace of God. When Jesus walked with us into the desert of our dying, he gave us not escape, but those few words of submission, “Into your hands I commend my spirit.”
He offers no way out from our wounds. He only gives us passage through them.
No, neither bread nor magic will save us. It will be only, as Paul writes, by our entry into Christ’s own act of total trust and abandonment, believing in our hearts that we ourselves are raised from the dead and live with new freedom.
“Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.”
By resisting his temptations Jesus shows us that our true gain is found not in satisfying ourselves but in something better—utter fidelity to God. This choice frees us, like Jesus, to be the persons we are meant to be, “led by the Spirit.”
Our forty days have begun. Lent is a time of clarification: We force ourselves against it to find out who we are. Blasé Pascal, a theologian, says that most of us spend all our time distracting ourselves from the great questions: Who are we? What does God want? Through the spiritual exercises of lent let us face those questions.