Editor’s note: Homily preached by the Reverend Peter M. J. Stravinskas, Ph.D., S.T.D., at the Church of the Holy Innocents in Manhattan on the First Sunday in Lent, March 9/10, 2019.
Imagine, if you will, a desert – arid, lifeless, boring in its sameness, oppressive in its heat, removed from civilization, inhabited by wild beasts, eerie because the possibilities for violence, suffering and death seem so real. In fact, the Jews believed that the desert was the abode of evil spirits. And yet, all three Synoptic evangelists tell us that Jesus is driven into the desert under the impulse of the Spirit.
Having painted such a grim picture of life in the desert, I should also note that there is something different about this particular desert. In spite of the potential for violence in the Gospel scene, we also have a sense of peace. Although Christ is with the wild beasts, we have no fear for Him. Nor does Jesus appear to be mastered by the elements; He seems in control throughout. Is there a hint here that the sinful, disordered condition of our world is now being renewed? Do we have here a hint of a “Paradise Restored”?
Sin breeds hate and discord, even in nature. Grace produces harmony and order. Jesus comes proclaiming a time of fulfillment, a time when God’s reign will be established in men’s hearts. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mk 1:15). Our Lord renders that challenge after going through the depths of human suffering and temptation. Jesus has the right to make this kind of proclamation because He knows that it is possible to overcome temptation. He has done it, and so can we. Reform is possible. Our situation is not hopeless; we are meant to be greater and better than we are. That is the good news Jesus brings, and that is the good news Lent bids us practice.
An important question, however, is this: Is sin inevitable for us? Actually, there is an even more basic question, the answer to which will tell me whether you are a Catholic or a Protestant. How many people think that mankind since the fall of Adam is essentially corrupt? How many think he is merely weakened? All of you who raised your hands for corruption are Lutherans. You see, the main point of contention between Luther and the Church revolved around the view of man each held. Luther believed that the sin of Adam had so totally destroyed man that the only way for man to find favor with God was to hide behind Christ on Judgment Day.
But the Church disagreed. The Catholic approach to man is much more positive, more hopeful, and it stems from the belief that although original sin weakened us as a race and as individuals, it did not take away our basic longing and capacity for good. And the reason for our more positive attitude is because we believe that Jesus reversed and undid the damage done by Adam. When Adam was tempted, he failed; when Jesus was tempted, He conquered.
Lent affords us the opportunity to view reality from the perspective of contrasts: sin and grace; feasting and fasting; death and life. The contrast is the most striking when we consider the behavior of the first Adam and that of the second Adam: The first was tempted and sinned, while the second was tempted but prevailed over His tempter.
If this holy season is going to make us any holier, it will be through making us come to a deeper and better understanding of temptation. Some basic facts are essential to grasp. First, the Devil is real, and he has an uncanny insight into human psychology, preying on our weaknesses, which he seems to know better than we do ourselves, or at least more than we are usually ready to admit.
Jesus the Messiah is thus subjected to three primal enticements (which have a tug on all people), but they had special significance for One who would be a Savior. His first temptation was from the flesh – carnal desires. Interestingly, Satan tempts Jesus to break His fast! Pay heed to this at the outset of your own commitment to holy fasting. Beyond that, today we see all around us the abuse of sex, food, drugs and alcohol. This is what happens when the body masters the mind; the human person is enslaved by the idolatry of creature comforts and eroticism.
Christ’s second temptation came from the mind, with appeals to pride and envy, among the basest instincts. Today, for example, we encounter people who think that science has all the answers to the questions of life: When and how should life begin? When and how should life end? These short-sighted people fail to realize that science is neutral and so requires direction, which direction can come only from minds and hearts formed by correct moral principles. When man succumbs to the arrogance of Adam and Eve – trying to be like God or trying to “go it alone” without God – he invariably becomes the victim of these urges, the just reward for the idolatry of a scientism-gone-wild or a pseudo-intellectualism, which are bound to self-destruct. As the Second Vatican Council reminded us in Gaudium et Spes: “Without the Creator, the creature vanishes” (n. 36).
The Lord’s final temptation came from things. It gains its influence from the force of greed. Today we see its power over those who value possessions more than persons, so that a Caribbean vacation is worth more than another child. In their foolishness, they never learn that the human heart attains complete fulfillment and happiness only in the Creator and never in the creature. Saint Augustine, who had been tempted in every way and had given into just about every one of those allurements, finally came to the sobering conclusion – after much painful experimentation: “Thou hast made us for Thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.” The sinner-turned-saint still offers that wise counsel to those locked into the idolatry of materialism.
Both Matthew and Luke show Jesus to be a Master of Holy Scripture. Of course, it makes perfect sense for the Word Embodied to know well the written Word. This holy season is an ideal moment to delve more deeply into a prayerful reading of Holy Writ, perhaps by taking a chapter of the Gospels each day as one’s daily reflection on the life of our Savior. The parish mission this coming week, devoted to the Gospel of St. John, is likewise an occasion to grow in one’s love for Christ and His holy Word. Remember, however, that Bible study is not an end in itself for, as these temptation accounts demonstrate and as the adage informs us, “even the Devil can quote Scripture for his own purposes.” No, we delve into the Word to know better the Word Himself.
St. Luke concludes his account of the Lord’s temptations with a tantalizing phrase: “[The Devil] departed from him for a time” (4:13). Some translations, however, render the verse as “for another opportunity.” Might that “another opportunity” not be Christ’s temptations which occur in us, the members of His Body, the Church? Lent, then, is a time to smash the idols in our lives; it is a crash course in confronting temptation. How does one respond appropriately to the phenomenon of temptation? Granted, massive doses of actual grace can be infused by Almighty God when the Devil makes his assaults. Generally, however, the Lord expects us to prepare for temptation by good Christian living on a daily, on-going basis.
Lent is an opportunity to do intensively what should be done normally, as Pope Saint Leo the Great taught in the sixth of his several homilies for this holy season: “We are summoned,” he says, “more urgently to prepare ourselves by a purification of spirit.” He goes on: “What the Christian should be doing at all times should be done now with greater care and devotion, so that the Lenten fast enjoined by the apostles may be fulfilled, not simply by abstinence from food but above all by the renunciation of sin.” Therefore, works of prayer, charity and self-denial should be embraced with gusto as ways of demonstrating our love for God and as means of strengthening ourselves for the battle of temptation. When the hour of testing comes – and it always does (sometimes far more often than we wish) – the good Lents of our lives will have provided us with the good habits and necessary experience to handle temptation effectively. Which is to say, we shall know how to tell the Devil to go to Hell!
The Church is most realistic in assessing human nature: Temptation is inevitable; sin is not. Saint Augustine again sets the pace in his homily preached on this very same Sunday 16 centuries ago: “If in Christ we have been tempted, in him we overcome the Devil. Do you think only of Christ’s temptations and fail to think of His victory? See yourself as tempted in Him, and see yourself as victorious in Him. He could have kept the Devil from Himself; but if He were not tempted, He could not teach you how to triumph over temptation.” Get it? In Christ’s temptation, we were all tempted. Fair enough, but there is more: In Christ’s victory over temptation, we were all victorious. That, then, enables us to face the temptations embodied in Lent with a sense of confidence and even joy. Lent is a prelude to Easter; it is the time of fasting to prepare for the feasting; it is the transition from sin to grace; it is the hour of death leading to everlasting life – all done in and through the Christ who once spent these forty days in the desert.
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Beautiful. I will read over and over.