1st Sunday Lent
A Homily - Cycle A - 2004-2005
First Reading - Genesis 2:7-9; 3:1-7
Responsorial Psalm - Psalm 51:3-4, 5-6, 12-13, 17
Second Reading - Romans 5:12-19 or 5:12, 17-19
Gospel - Matthew 4:1-11
Matthew wrote to show that Christ
Messiah and fulfilled the Jewish prophecies.
At that time Jesus was led by the spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was hungry. The tempter approached and said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become loaves of bread." He said in reply, "It is written: One does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes forth from the mouth of God."
Then the devil took him to the holy city, and made him stand on the parapet of the temple, and said to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. For it is written: He will command his angels concerning you and will their hands they will support you, lest you dash your foot against a stone." Jesus answered him, "Again it is written, You shall not put the Lord, your God to the test."
Then the devil took him up to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in their magnificence, and said to him, "All these I shall give to you, if you will prostrate yourself and worship me." At this, Jesus said to him, "Get away, Satan! It is written: The Lord, your God shall you worship and him alone shall you serve,."
Then the devil left him and, behold, angels came and ministered to him.
The crowds that gather at Mass around the country to begin Lent each Ash Wednesday never cease to amaze me. There's something about Ash Wednesday that speaks to the Catholic instinct. Perhaps it's the idea of "getting something" at Mass that draws people here each year at this time. What is more amazing is that Ash Wednesday isn't even a holy day of obligation and yet it is the third or fourth most attended Mass of the year, outside of Christmas, Easter and perhaps Palm Sunday. For Catholics, it's as if Lent can't really begin for us until we have those ashes on our forehead.
We find ourselves now at the First Sunday of Lent. Each year, the first Sunday of this season is dedicated to the story of our Lord's temptation in the desert. What I would like to do in this homily is open up the dynamics in the reading from Genesis and then in phase two, relate those dynamics to the Gospel reading and then in phase three, relate the readings to how they apply to us in the modern era.
We begin with Genesis. It's a story we're quite familiar with, isn't it? Just a few verses prior to the reading we heard, God places Adam and Eve at the center of the Garden of Eden. He gives them dominion over the entire natural created order. God tells Adam and Eve in Genesis 2:16 and 17, "You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die." In other words, God tells Adam and Eve that they are free to do what they ought to to do - authentic freedom. Adam and Eve are free to live in an excellent way - to follow God's law and to live according to His plan. They are truly free because they have the capacity to live in God's friendship. Given this backdrop, we see how great a deceiver Satan truly is. It's no coincidence that we call him the Father of Lies. In a way, then, every sin is a lie. If Jesus is the Truth, then Satan is the Liar and sin is a lie. It's a move away from the Truth, who is our Lord. Notice what Satan does. He calls God a liar! This should have been a red flag to Eve! Satan says that God has deceived Adam and Eve. Rather than concentrate on how freedom is the capacity to do what we ought to do, Satan shows how freedom is a freedom from constraint - that is, no one can tell us how to live. That's not real freedom: the kind of freedom from constraint is called licentiousness or caprice - the capacity to do merely what we want and not necessarily what we ought to do. Satan's deceit tricks Eve into disobedience. In his deceit, Satan totally reframes the discussion. He says, "Did God really tell you not to eat from any of the trees in the garden? How cunningly the devil speaks! That is NOT what God said and yet Eve is tricked into thinking that.
That's the problem with sin - we choose sin on the premise that it seems good to us. In reality, we know that it's not good. We even rationalize to justify our choice of sin. The key to living a life of virtue is lining up what is truly good for us and making that our choice. It's worth quoting GK Chesterton again. He says that the man who knocks on the door of the brothel is seeking God! How interesting. It means that sin seems good to us. If it didn't, we wouldn't choose it! Learning to be free means learning to discern what is truly good for us and choosing it time after time.
The deceit and disobedience of Adam and Eve is now overcome by the truth and obedience of Mary and Jesus. We move from the order of nature in Adam and Eve to a new order or grace in our Lady and our Lord. Their collective humility replaces the collective pride of our first parents. Prior to embarking on his public ministry, our Lord makes a 40-day retreat in the desert. These are the last days that He will spend in uninterrupted communion in His humanity with the Father and Holy Spirit before He begins his mission. Note well that this is recorded in three of the four Gospels even though none of the three evangelists who recorded this were eyewitnesses to the actual events. Our Lord thought this sequence of events to be so important that He wanted it recorded in three of the Gospels. Our Lord wanted us to know that there is a cosmic battle going on at every moment between the forces of good and evil - between Satan and God - between angels and demons. The stakes are incredibly high - souls are in the balance and we ought never to overlook how we are caught in the middle. This story of the temptation isn't so much about Jesus and the devil as it is about how you and I are real players in the ongoing war in the world of the unseen.
Satan tempts our Lord in the three ways the human person is most susceptible to falling. First, we have the temptation against the flesh. Satan tempts Jesus to turn stones into bread. I find it almost humorous that Matthew records that after 40 days of fasting, Jesus was hungry. No kidding! I get hungry every 40 minutes! We all know that the first bodily sensation that we notice when we are not quite ourselves is hunger. Babies cry when they are hungry. Adults get cranky when they are hungry. Good conversation usually follows a meal.
Second, Satan tempts our Lord to show His power as a matter of pride. Satan tempts Jesus to show His power by casting Himself off the Temple parapet so as to demonstrate how angels would come to His aid. This is the temptation towards the ego or our pride. One of the great mysteries of the Passion of our Lord is His capacity to remain totally meek - that is, self-possessed during His execution. If I were our Lord, I would have stopped the whole round of torture at the first blow to the head. Wouldn't we be justified in saying, "Do you know who I am? You've gone too far this time! How dare you strike at the Son of God!" And yet, therein lies His true power. True power is not the mere use of brute force or coercion. True power is found in the person who can use brute force or coercion and yet chooses not to do so. Truly powerful persons are self-possessed - their emotions do not rule them. They can show restraint.
Third, Satan tempts our Lord in the area of material gain. This is the third most common way that we can be tempted, other than in the flesh and in our pride. Jesus resists this temptation as He resists all the temptations. Victory belongs to the Lamb!
This brings us to the third phase of the homily - what the temptation of Christ means for us. Jesus was not tempted in His divinity. This is not possible. However, He was tempted in His humanity from an outside force - the devil. You and I are also tempted from the outside, but we are also tempted from within - by our disordered desires due to the wounding in our soul caused by original sin. Sometimes, we give the devil too much credit when we are tempted. We think that we are tempted from the outside when in fact, we are fertile ground to be tempted from within. We give the devil ample room and latitude to tempt us because we put up no defense against sin within us. That is why the person who commits repeated deliberate venial sin leaves himself wide open for a mortal sin to occur. On the converse, the person who resists deliberate venial sin builds up spiritual muscle to avoid mortal sin. So, while we can be tempted from the outside, we need to examine ourselves to see if we allow ourselves to be tempted without much help from the devil.
Another important distinction we ought to make is the difference between sin and temptation. They are not the same thing. Sin is a willed act upon a temptation. It takes a mere temptation and makes it part of our will and something that we freely chose. To say one is sinning when one is merely tempted does an injustice to oneself. We ought not be surprised that temptations can come and go. It's part of that cosmic battle for our soul. Furthermore, the mere presence of a temptation is no guarantee that we will sin. We can say no! We can resist temptation. To think otherwise is a move towards fatalism - the ideal that merely being tempted necessarily means that sin will follow. Part of the majesty of our free will is the capacity to choose good over evil. The fact that our Lord does so for 40 days and nights means that we, by His grace, can do the same!
The great virtue that underlies our Lord's fortitude and victory over temptation is humility. The pride of Adam and Eve is replaced by his humility. This humility leads to obedience to the Father's will. Obedience is more than mere compliance. Obedience is sharing the mind and will of the command giver. Compliance can remain external and forensic. Obedience is a bending of the mind and will to that of the lawgiver, even if we think we know better. Of the three promises that priests make at ordination, obedience is the toughest, by far. To bend the mind and will and share that of a superior can be extremely difficult. I would submit that we don't train children to be obedient - we only train them in compliance. They may follow the rules but they don't necessarily share in the mind and will of their parents. That is a life project and one that many never learn. It's the same spirit of obedience that we need when it comes to our relationship with God. Jesus never lost this spirit of obedience in His relationship with the Father. It was the basis for his fidelity to His mission. Later in Sacred Scripture, Peter tempts Jesus into abandoning His mission, decrying our Lord's claim that His Passion would soon come. Jesus says to Peter, "Get behind me, Satan!" Peter's words reminded Jesus all too well of the 40 days and 40 nights in the desert battling the devil.
I would like to close with words of Psalm 51, which I think best encapsulates the spirit of humility that we need to adopt if we too are to become obedient children of the Father - children who live with the confidence that we can overcome temptation, just as our Lord Himself did. It's the spirit of God which teaches us to love true freedom - a freedom to live as He wants us to live. The Psalmist writes: A clean heart create for me, O God, and a steadfast spirit renew within me. Cast me not out from your presence and your Holy Spirit take not from me. Give me back the joy of your salvation, and a willing spirit sustain in me. O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.
Praised be Jesus Christ! Now and forever!
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