Sunday, March 9, 2014

The Great Lenten Question

I’m a bit short on both inspiration and time this morning, and as it happens I am the celebrant and homilist for the Sunday Mass at MH today, so thought I would just give the homily I’m going to deliver. The Gospel (Matt 4:1-11) is the testing of Christ in the desert. Being with Christ in the desert is the great Lenten image and theme anyhow, so here is my take on the subject, below the fold:

I just want to stay with the Gospel in this homily – there’s so much going on here, really. First of all, this whole Gospel resonates deeply with the experience of the people of Israel in the desert, the forty years of their wandering corresponding to Jesus’ forty days. And they were tested in the wilderness – it is key here to note that that Jesus is not so much being tempted here in our normal sense of the word, since He is God and not metaphysically capable of committing a moral fault. He is being tested here – the Greek word peirasmos means both temptation and test.

And the sense of testing is crucial to whole meaning here. Abraham was tested, the Jewish people in the wilderness were tested, not to lead them into sin, but to do what any test is meant to do – to find out what is in them. You can give up cognac and lobster for Lent, but there is no way of knowing how serious you are about it, until they are offered you. Not much of a test. Give up tea or salt or second helpings for Lent, and the test is before you every time you sit down to a meal. How serious are you about Lent – the test shows it!

Abraham passed his test, and so became the father of a multitude, ultimately the spiritual father of all who believe. The people of Israel fail their test, repeatedly. God keeps extending mercy, asking their fidelity again and again, and the test keeps coming back marked ‘incomplete’ or ‘F’ for failure. And we all know ourselves to share in that legacy of failure, of sin. The test for us, for all the children of Adam and Eve, is both test and temptation, and none of us score 100%, to say the least.

So Jesus is being tested. Why? Does God not know who his own Son is, and what is in Him? Of course he does. Or does Jesus not know who He Himself is? Of course He does. And does the devil need to know who Jesus is? Who cares about that loser and what he does or doesn’t know? He failed his test aeons ago.

This is for us, you see. We are the ones who need to see just who this Jesus is, who this Son of God is, and what it means for Him to be the Son of God. Jesus is tested, so that we can know the spirit that is in Him, and in that, the Spirit that is to be ours as his disciples, and the Spirit that is given us as we follow Christ in the desert of the world.

The whole covenant is at stake here – this is an intensely covenantal Gospel, with its constant reference to Deuteronomy and the wilderness. The first covenant is characterized by absolute fidelity on God’s part and utter inconstancy on our part. This covenant is marked by absolute fidelity on both sides – the Father’s total fidelity to the Son, the Son to the Father, and since Jesus is both man and God, we are invited into that covenant which really is no covenant at all but the very interior life of the Trinity.

So let’s look at the three tests of Jesus and see what they are about, really. When we look at these three, we could well start singing that old song from Sesame Street – ‘one of these things is not like the other’. The first and the third test are about perfectly rational things, normal goods of life – food and power. 

Nothing too mysterious there. The middle test is just weird – what is it about, throwing yourself off the temple so the angels can catch you? Huh? In Scripture, it is the part that makes you say ‘huh?’ that is generally the key to the whole passage. And so it is here.

But back to the first and third. Food – Jesus is very hungry, and he has the power to make food. This test is about the immediate need, the immediate sense of what I need for my life right now. We all have this test constantly, don’t we? And to exert our power, to do whatever it takes to get what I need right now, from the stones, from you, whatever – this is not exactly unknown in the human condition. Jesus shows himself here to be living in a different mode entirely. He is famished, very hungry, but ‘I do not need bread, but I do need God.’ A peace, a resting in God’s provision, a sense, against the testimony of his very flesh, his body, that what is needed here is the word of God, the will of God, obedience to that will and not to the demand of the flesh.

The third temptation – this is very subtle here. What the devil offers Jesus is, in fact, the fulfillment of the Lord’s own vocation. Jesus is King of kings and Lord of lords, the Pantocrator, the ruler of all. Satan is offering the Lord the fulfillment of His own personal destiny. Not the immediate need of the flesh, but the final end of his person. And he’s offering him a short cut – just fall down and worship me, and it’s all yours.

In other words, why bother with the Cross? What is this nonsense about ‘the son of man must be handed over and made to suffer grievously and be put to death and on the third day rise again’? Boom – fall down on your face before me, and it’s all yours. And of course this is where Jesus shows who he is and what he is made of, and decisively rejects the Satanic path in the world – ‘away with you Satan’ – the same words he will say, more or less, to Peter when he was rejecting the way of the Cross, of suffering and redeeming love.

The Lord will fulfill the plan of God, but as his Father in heaven would have it and in no other way. Our lives, too, are to fulfill God’s glorious plan, but only by the way of the cross, the way of sacrifice and obedience and love.

And then we have this second temptation, which seems to be about nothing at all. It seems to have no other point than to make God prove that He is really taking care of Jesus. In fact, that’s it exactly. The test here is whether or not Jesus will put God to the test. And that’s the nub of the matter. God puts us to the test, continually. God always is probing the mind and the heart, always drawing out from us what is in us, to bring it into the light so that we may not have illusions about ourselves and so that He and we can look together at the truth of our being, wretches that we are. And Jesus stands with us under the testing of God, because He loves us.

God puts us to the test, but we must never, ever, ever put God to the test. You see, our fidelity is in question, our faith, our love, our willingness to obey—all of this is in question, and so God tests us. God’s fidelity, His goodness and love, are beyond question, and He does not have to prove Himself for us. Not if we have faith.

And so there is the great Lenten question, then. Do we have faith? When our immediate needs are not being met, do we fly into immediate action and employ every strategy and power play we have to get what we need… or do we stand still and wait upon the will of God? Or when our lives are not moving towards their vocational goal and destiny as fast as we might like, when things are a little bogged down, do we panic, do we start looking for someone, somewhere that we can fall down before, some god or other that we can placate to get our lives where we want them to be… or do we look at the crucifix, and look at the call to love and serve, to trust and pray, to suffer and die with Christ right now? Into your hands, Lord, I commit my spirit, right now. 

This is the Lenten call, the call to trust God and above all to place our whole being in the being of Christ, so that what is in him may be in us, and his love and trust of his Father may be ours as well. And that is what we are doing right here and right now, in this Eucharist.


  1. Thanks, Fr. Denis, we had a good homily at Mass today, but I like yours even better.


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