Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Year C, First Sunday of Lent

Once again, at least until next Sunday, you can watch instead of read this homily on the Intermountain Catholic's "Broadcast of Mass from the Cathedral On Demand" for free and without registering. However, if your are a subscriber, why not register? If you are a Utah Catholic and not a subscriber, why not?

Readings: Deut 26,4-10; Ps 91, 1-2.10-15; Rom 10,8-13; Lk 4,1-13

One question that bears asking in light of today’s Gospel, is the question Was Jesus free? Did he have real alternatives and choices? Or, “had everything been decided for him in advance, only to be played out as a faithful reflection of God’s eternal choice?” The answer to this question makes a big "difference to the picture we have of Jesus and how we follow him" (To Follow You, Light of Life, pg. 13).

It is important to point out that the Church has given our question a definitive answer: "without a shadow of a doubt Jesus was indeed endowed with human will and freedom . . . he was a free person who chose his future under no constraint, and who accepted and took upon himself all the risks involved in freedom." In this we see that Jesus was able to say no to the Father’s plan and follow another path of his own choosing. Thankfully, he did not abuse his freedom in this way. "We have," writes the author of the Letter to the Hebrews, "one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin" (Heb 4,15). It is precisely because of his true and honest exercise of freedom that Jesus "broke the hold exercised by sin and" brought about new life (To Follow You, Light of Life, pgs. 13-14). This is why St. Paul, in our second reading from Ash Wednesday, can write: "For our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Cor 5,21).

Jesus knew "the risk and struggle involved in being free." He was really tempted and had the freedom to choose what he would do in the face of temptation. This brings us to today’s Gospel which tells us of our Lord’s forty days in the desert prior to inaugurating his public ministry. Despite the clear understanding of the faith on the matter of his freedom, Jesus’ temptations in the desert are still often interpreted as a kind of didactic moral lesson along the lines of "the Lord showed us how we should overcome temptation – but without really being tempted himself." Such a reading of Christ’s temptations tries to avoid the diminution of his divinity. Just as we tend to shrink back from an orthodox understanding of the Blessed Trinity by our refusal to come to grips with the real distinction of persons, thus remaining in the words of Fr. Karl Rahner "mere monotheists," as opposed to full-blown Trinitarians, for which Christian is the more familiar name, we tend to slight Jesus’ humanity out of fear of diminishing his divinity. Such an interpretation of this narrative deprives it of all seriousness and meaning, as it sees our Lord as merely going through the motions for the very stale purpose of giving us a moral lesson, without taking any risks himself. If such were the case, Jesus’ story would not be a truly human story, but – as philosopher Jacques Maritain might say – a "parody of humanity" (To Follow You, Light of Life, pg. 16) and would be powerless to break the hold of sin on real human beings, like you and me, thus emptying the mystery of the Incarnation, to which we bow each time we recite the Credo, of any meaningful content. We must never forget that "Christ does not save us from our humanity, but through it" (Pope Benedict XVI, Christmas 2006 Urbi et Orbi).

In St. Luke’s account of our Lord’s experience in the desert, his three temptations are paralleled with the temptations of Israel during the other scriptural event that we also see as being relevant to this holy season, their forty year sojourn in the desert in route to the Promised Land. Jesus redeems the sins of Israel by freely rejecting sin while professing faith in God. In the books of Exodus (chapter 16) and Numbers (chapter 11) we read about Israel’s hunger and their grumbling against God, to which the Eternal One responds with the gift of manna. This, of course, corresponds to the devil’s invitation to Jesus to turn a rock into bread (Lk 4,3). Jesus responds to this temptation by quoting from the Torah, "one does not live on bread alone" (Deut 8,3).

The second parallel comes with the devil’s invitation to Jesus to replace the true and living God with an idol, like Israel’s golden calf (Exo 32), when the devil tells our Lord that he will give him "all the kingdoms of the world" if he will but worship someone other than God (Lk 4,7). Again, Jesus responds with a quote from the Law: "You shall worship the Lord, your God, and him alone shall you serve" (Deut 6,3).

The final correspondence is between the devil’s demand that Jesus hurl himself off the parapet of the Temple for the purpose of calling down angels to rescue him from what would be a foolish and arrogant choice and Israel’s protest at Massah about being thirsty, which led Moses to sin by putting God to the test and calling forth water from the rock. This precipitous act precluded Moses from entering the Promised Land (Exo 17,1-7; Num 20,2-13). Jesus responds to this final temptation with an admonition directly related to the episode at Massah: "“You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test." (Deut 6,16).

In all this we see that Jesus really and truly experienced temptation’s seductive pull. He certainly knew the fascination of the political and worldly messianism of his time, encountered among his people as he shared their suffering under Roman oppression. Such political and worldly messianism is not limited to first century Jews, however. Indeed, beginning at the end of the nineteenth century and continuing throughout the twentieth until today, many have tried to demythologize the Good News that is Jesus Christ, by reducing him to a worldly, or existential Messiah.

Reflecting on these three temptations, we come to see that there is really only one temptation from the beginning of time. It is the temptation that seduced the first Adam, tripped up Moses and Israel, and has bedeviled you and me: the temptation to trust in oneself and the power of the world, to be “like” God in our own right, instead of trusting in God in his manifest "weakness." This reality, which we experience daily, forces us to make a radical decision posed by St. Augustine in this way: "love of self until God is forgotten, or love of God until self is forgotten" (De Civitate dei, 14.28).

My dear sisters and brothers, may we always remember that the “Church's mission is not an addition to that of Christ and the Holy Spirit, but is its sacrament: in her whole being and in all her members, the Church is sent to announce, bear witness, make present, and spread the mystery of the communion of the Holy Trinity"(Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 738). Hence, during these forty days we should be fully conscious that we are called to renew our covenant with God, through Christ, into whom we entered at baptism, and who gives us our sacramental identity by the power of the Holy Spirit. Lent is also a time of intensified prayer for and preparation of our Catechumens and Candidates, who later today will be enrolled among the Elect and called to continuing conversion as they make their way toward Easter. So, it is to that covenant we look on this first Sunday of Lent and hear God, speaking through the Church, asking each one of us, in imitation of our Lord in today’s Gospel: Do you reject sin so as to live in the freedom of God’s children? Do you reject the glamour of evil, and refuse to be mastered by sin? Do you reject Satan, father of sin and prince of darkness? (Rite of Baptism). Let us, like Jesus, use these forty days to anchor our freedom with the truth and at Easter respond with a resounding “Yes!” in the confidence that no one who confesses Jesus as Lord “will be put to shame” (Rom 10,11).

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