24 February 2007

What do you want from the Desert?

1st Sunday of Lent: Deut 26.4-10; Romans 10.8-13; Luke 4.1-13
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St. Luke Parish, St. Paul Hospital, Church of the Incarnation

[Fair warning: this is a strange one...I dunno...]


People of God! Where are you this morning/evening? Where are you? We stepped into this desert three/four days ago, looked up at the sun, put the first foot in front of the other, said a prayer of thanksgiving to God, and set our hearts and our feet on Jerusalem. The cross is there, somewhere. And Jesus. No. No, he’s here with us…somewhere, isn’t he? Yes. Yes, he is…somewhere. The sand is scratchy and hot. The wind is brittle dry and stinging loud. The first fast of this “going into the desert” was good, wasn’t it? The plan and promise was there; the spilling-over-wonder at our blessings, the nearly painful longing to please God with our small sacrifices, just one day’s offerings. Even the desert is bright and daring watching it from home, from settled comfort, and abundance.

You watched the desert, expecting this Lenten trek and you wanted…you wanted…something. Someone? What? Think back! Go back and see it! Ash Wednesday is like a barge on the church calendar, plowing through ordinary time to arrive like a liturgical bully at the dock of the altar. No sweet hymns. No decorative treats or cute secular totems. Just ash and a reminder: you are made from ash and to ash you will return. From dust to dust. At that moment, with that memory: what did you want? Now, what do you want? You need to know this. The desert knows. I mean, the time you spend these next 35 days or so wandering the desert of the spiritual life, what you most desire, that which we need most will come to you. And not necessarily in a form or fashion that you will recognize. Lent is not about avoiding temptations. Lent is not about fasting or prayer or being good. Lent is about wandering into the emptiness, the vanity, the wreckage we have made of our spiritual lives and finding one more time the stalwart presence of God, the inexhaustible workings of the Holy Spirit. Seeking and finding the face of Christ.

These forty days are a countdown for detachment, for unplugging. Lent is a time for us to detach from all the teats of our poisoned culture and to stop sucking at the breasts of market-tested nihilism and brand-name conformity; to stop the sewer-flood of Hollywood-funded debauchery and sadism into our homes; to speak the gospel Truth to the dark powers of “might makes right” moralities; to witness against the suicidal, all-you-can-eat buffet of liberal religious candy our children are fed daily...even in our Catholic schools. Lent is a time for you to remove your lips from the honeyed breasts of genetic science and its Faustian promise of near-immortality. You will live forever but not by murdering a child; you can be beautiful forever but not at the price of harvesting our children like melons.

Lent is a time for you to calculate with cold reason and a clean heart your commitments in this world. Where are you bound? To whom do you owe your money, your livelihood, your dignity…your soul? Who owns you? What ideas possess your mind? What passions fuel your heart? What images cloud your vision? What do you worry about and why? Here’s the question with which to examine your conscience before confession: exactly how would anyone know Jesus owns me body and soul?

Know the answers! You must. Because the desert knows and the desert will tell. The desert will tell the Devil and he will color in those drab images, season those dull fumes, stoke the fires of weak passion. He’ll parade your desires, sharpened and concentrated, parade them before you, lying to you, pampering you, telling you how much you deserve what you cannot possibly need and only vaguely want. When those ashes were traced on your forehead…at that moment, what did you want? Mercy? Forgiveness? Love? To be seen as pious? You will find it in the Lenten desert. But will your desires look like gifts among all that scarcity?

Pay careful attention to the gospel. Jesus went into the desert to pray, right? No. He went into the desert to fast, right? No. He went into the desert to start his new diet? No. Of course, he prayed and fasted. But he didn’t go into the desert to do those things. Rather he “was led by the Spirit into the desert for forty days to be tempted by the devil.” He went to the desert so that he could be tempted. The devil tempted him with food, power, and worship. Jesus refuses each in turn. He quotes scripture and dismisses each temptation as a mere shadow of what His Father offers. The devil offers Jesus illusion, impermanence. And he will offer you the same. And you will accept his offer unless you understand with near perfect clarity and will what you want, what you desire as a faithful follower of Christ.

Lent is not about avoiding temptation. Lent is about walking the hot sand of deprivation so that what tempts you worms its way to the surface. Discomforted, what tempts you selfishly proclaims its own praise, shouts it own name. Not yours. And then you know the truth: you are not your sin; you aren’t even the sum total of all your sins! Yes, you’ve fallen, given in, even welcomed Rebellion and Disobedience into your life. Praise God then that Lent is about clearing the wreck of your worldly life so that He Who moves you at your core, rises, speaks His name with authority, claims your soul, and makes your life among the things of this world a tireless prayer, a breathless hymn, and an inexhaustible fiat! This is more than a mere reminder of who’s in charge of your Christian life; it is a renewal of the bond of affection between Father and child, the rediscovery of an unshakable peace and infallible grace.

One foot, then another. The sand swirls. The desert is liquid hot, waving fumes above the dunes. We’re just four days in. Where are you? Where is your eager fast, that laughing prayer of praise? Evaporated already? No worries. Jesus is here with us. Not just somewhere but here. He’s with us here and now, and he waits for us at the cross. We choose to follow him. We picked up his cup. Shared his blessing. Ate his flesh and drank his blood. We’re more than his now, more than students or friends. We are his flesh and blood. The desert knows this. It will collect its tempting spirits and whisper to us of power, hunger, self-righteousness, revenge, violence, the many poisons we seem so eager to swallow. Listen carefully with the ears of Christ to the bargains and deals, the attempts to haggle and posture. And then what? Fight? Resist? No. Why? Why would you fight? Don’t fight the Devil! Why would you fight a defeated foe? Do what Christ does during his Lenten fast: call on the Word, confident in a victory already won, and teach this fallen angel who you are!

Don’t waste your forty days dieting. Spend this time in the desert ruthlessly paring away your allegiances, brutally assessing how you contribute to the preaching of the Word, to the spreading of the Gospel. What do you want, child of God? When you received your ashes and were told that you are mortal, what did you want to find in this Lenten desert?

How eager are you--exactly--to find the cross?


  1. You say it's strange...I call it inspired. Thank you!

    I am SO linking this post!

  2. Adoro,

    Thanks! I was in a very odd mood yesterday and it shows in this homily. Took me most of the day to finish it...as opposed to the more usual two to three hours. I just hope that folks can pick out what they need and run with it...

    Fr. Philip

  3. Don’t fight the Devil! Why would you fight a defeated foe? Do what Christ does during his Lenten fast: call on the Word, confident in a victory already won, and teach this fallen angel who you are!

    This is very reassuring when one is tempted to quit the Way.

  4. Fr. Phillip,

    Thank you for some of the most powerful and brutal imagery I have seen for the beginning of Lent. A homily worth chewing on for all of Lent and then some.

  5. That is incredible; thank you so much. I will be taking all of that to prayer and I'm sure will only scratch the surface.

  6. Father I remember being in a mood like this once, and I wrote something, and the heat and ferocity of it only hit me later, and it's truth. It's like someone else is breathing in what you are doing, and that of course, is the latin root for the english word "inspiration", the breathing in of the spirit.

    What you wrote hit me smack in the face, and I especially appreciate everythign you said about "unplugging". I think that's exactly right!

    You are so getting added to my blogroll. Love your writing! Thank you!!!