First Sunday of Lent
Fr. Raymond Lafontaine, E.V. March 1, 2020
Lent begins – as it does each year – with the familiar story of the temptations of Jesus. It’s a story we’ve heard many times before. It reminds us that the love offered by Jesus, the example of his resistance to the subtle temptations of the Evil One, is an effective antidote to the fear, anxiety and selfishness that the enemy of our human nature seeks to sow into our hearts.
How do these words of Jesus challenge us today? What might these temptations have to do with the challenges we face in our daily lives? Where can we find the strength to choose goodness, to be ourselves the change we desire to see in the world.
The Irish wit Oscar Wilde famously remarked: “I can resist everything … except temptation.” Or, as more cynical authors have suggested, “The quickest way to put an end to a temptation … is to give in to it!”
Yet we know that temptation is something real. No one is immune. The shocking revelations, shared with transparency by the L’Arche movement last week, that their beloved founder and spiritual giant Jean Vanier had sexually exploited at least six women who came to him for spiritual direction, shows us that even beloved spiritual leaders, whether clerics or laypeople, can fall to the temptation to abuse their authority.
Why does God allow us to be tempted? And what does the example of Jesus in today’s Gospel teach us about how we might identify temptations when they arise, bring them to the light, and deal with them with honesty and integrity?
In the recent French revision of the Roman Missal, an interesting change has been introduced to the wording of that best-known of prayers, the Our Father. For years, we have translated Jesus’ words with the phrase, “Lead us not into temptation.” In the new missal, the wording is changed to “Do not let us enter into temptation.” Another suggestion, which I would have preferred, is “Sustain us when we are in temptation.”
This isn’t just semantics. It has to do with the underlying image of God. Do we see God as continually “testing us”, creating traps for us to fall into and ready to judge us if we fall? Or rather, is God not the one who stands by us, leading and guiding us, as we negotiate the difficulties of living in an imperfect and sinful world?
I recently saw a play at the Centaur Theatre inspired by the great religious poet John Milton’s masterpiece “Paradise Lost”. But in a typically postmodern twist, the Satan character is the hero – the rebel who claims to defend human freedom to push back against all limits, until you realize that her goal is not to set them free, but to bring them under her own domination. Jesus comes off pretty well, but God the Father was pretty clueless, and the Holy Spirit didn’t even turn up!
As a moral theologian – and a human being – the question of temptation fascinates me. They exist for a reason. Temptations test the boundaries of our strengths and weaknesses. They help us to recognize both our moral capacities and our moral limits. God allows temptation not because he takes some kind of perverse pleasure in pushing us to the extreme, but because they are part of our slow, arduous path to self-knowledge, the development of conscience and virtue. And how we deal with so-called “small” temptations shapes the pattern of our response when larger, more momentous decisions of our lives need to be faced.
Take Adam and Eve, in today’s first reading. They have everything they need. They seem content. Yet they are attracted by the one thing that has been forbidden them. The serpent has rightly identified the chink in their armour: he sows doubt into their previously trusting relationship with God. Rather than a God of generosity, he suggests to them that God is in competition with them, blocking them from attaining full knowledge and power over their lives. And they both fall for it – hook, line, and sinker!
How often do we hear voices, whether outside in our society or even within ourselves, telling us: “You don’t really need God … or faith … or anyone else, for that matter. You are entirely self-sufficient. Independent. Autonomous. You don’t need to be satisfied with what you already have. You deserve the best. You need more.”
In that respect, we are not so different from Adam and Eve. We also want to be “like God,” to be the sole arbiters of what is right or wrong, even to having the power over life and death. Yet when we assert that control, sooner or later, things begin to fall apart. No matter how much we get, how many things we accumulate, it’s never quite enough. The bounty of creation is not shared fairly with all, but leads to polarizations between rich and poor, the overfull and the undernourished, the world where obesity and starvation co-exist in a strange alliance. Our asserted independence sours into isolation, a crushing loneliness. Always needing to have the upper hand in relationship, to be in control, leads our marriages, families, friendships, communities to break down.
The irony is that deep down, we know that we don’t want to live in that way. We know that there is a better way – another path to happiness, to genuine satisfaction, to a balanced and healthy life, to real freedom. As St. Paul assures us in today’s second reading, there is an antidote to this vicious circle, this unhealthy pattern that we so easily slip into. It undoes the disorder unleashed by human pride, but it promises infinitely more: an abundance of grace, an outpouring of love, the promise of a salvation that begins here and now, leading us into the promise of eternal happiness. It is the way of Christ, in whom perfect freedom and perfect obedience co-existed.
This is what is happening in today’s Gospel. In the desert, Jesus confronts the same temptations we do, whenever we feel lonely, or deprived, or vulnerable. We know well the temptation to fill our inner void, our spiritual hunger, our deepest desires, with things that meet a need, but fail to satisfy. It’s different things for different people: food and drink, TV and Internet, Facebook and Netflix, shopping and gambling, gossip and detraction.
The danger – even for “good, religious people” – is to live largely as if God does not exist: we put Him regularly to the test – and then we expect a “command performance” the moment we find ourselves in need. We worship the idols of worldly power and prestige, seeking our identity in these, rather than trust in the living God who says to me what he said to Jesus at his Baptism, immediately before the Spirit leads him into the desert: “You are my beloved child: in you I am well pleased.”
When faced with temptation, Jesus remembers who He is. When hungry, or in danger, or tempted by worldly power, he remains secure in his identity. Rooted in the word of God, Jesus the Incarnate Word knows the difference between the junk food offered by the Tempter – the desire to be relevant, spectacular, and powerful – and the simpler but far more substantial nourishment coming from God’s word, from his identity as Beloved Son.
Unfortunately, in our human weakness, our struggle with temptation does not always conclude so heroically or successfully. But Jesus gives us the hope of hearing a voice even stronger than those of the many temptations that surround us. With his help, we can pass the test, we can win the race, we can move beyond our restless pursuit of pleasure and security, to receive the gift of happiness and joy.
Where is the Spirit leading us as a community, in the time of Lent? If indeed, “Love is Stronger Than Fear”, how might we give concrete expression to that love in our common Lenten pilgrimage? One way is for us to be attentive to the three spiritual disciplines traditionally associated with the Lenten season. The one we are most familiar with is fasting: the idea of “giving something up” for Lent. But too often, like New Year’s resolutions, it can become too much about my will-power, my capacity to “do something hard”, rather than creating a space within my heart and life for God to fill!
The other two Lenten disciplines propose an investment of the space created by fasting. One is increased time dedicated to prayer, to cultivating a deeper relationship with God who alone has the capacity to satisfy the more profound cravings and desires of the human heart. The other is almsgiving, which can take the form of monetary gifts or works of charity, a reminder that all we have comes to us as a gift from God and that we are called to use what we have received for the strengthening of our community and to relieve human suffering wherever we see it.
Each of the Lenten disciplines is an expression of what we call Christian “stewardship”. According to Paul Wilkes, we live as good stewards when we:
- receive God’s gifts gratefully,
- cherish and tend them in a responsible and accountable manner,
- share them in justice and love with others, and
- return them with increase to the Lord.
There is a lot packed into that definition! If God has given us the precious gift of time, we can ask ourselves: how do I make good use of my time to serve God, to be present to others, to do the work of his Kingdom? If God has given me unique gifts and talents, do I “bury them” or deny them? Do I see them as making me better or more important than others? Or do I receive them gratefully and develop them responsibly, sharing them in a way that builds up the community and serves the common good?
Finally, God has given us treasure: do I see money and my other material possessions as something solely my own, serving only my needs, or am I willing to be generous in sharing them – to build up my church community, and to help those in greatest need – not just from my surplus, but sacrificially. Can I give not only till it hurts, but till it begins to feel good?!
This weekend, Ken Saldanha (and his wife Sheila), and Nadine Hurst, have agreed to give a brief witness about how they are trying to respond to the Lord’s call to generosity, and to encourage us to prayerfully reflect on how we might do the same according to our own means and life situation. I thank them for their courage in sharing this part of their spiritual journey. May we all be open to the movement of the Spirit as we walk our Lenten path together, remembering that indeed, “Love is stronger than fear.” AMEN.