05 March 2017

One foot in front of the other. . .

NB. I'm not preaching today, so here's a Vintage Homily from 2007. . .

1st Sunday of Lent(A): Gen 2.7-9, 3.1-7; Rom 5.12, 17-19, Matt 4.1-11
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Paul Hospital and Church of the Incarnation

John baptizes Jesus. Coming up out of the Jordan River, Jesus sees the Spirit as a dove and hears the voice of his Father, “This is my beloved Son…” Stepping onto the bank of the river, Jesus is seized by the Spirit and lead into the desert “to be tempted by the devil.” Jesus fasts for forty days and forty nights. When he is weak from hunger, possibly addled from lack of sleep, and vulnerable to attack, the Tempter comes to offer him what we all would imagine is foremost in his mind right that moment: food! Jesus refuses food. The Tempter then offers him two more enticements: one of pride (to exploit his status as the Son of God) and another of avarice and power (to become the ruler of the world). Jesus deftly turns both away, leaving the Devil to flee in order to make room for the Father’s ministering angels. Though we are no doubt delighted that Jesus won his battle of wills with the Devil, we may wonder why the Son of God, the Word Made Flesh, is “lead by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil” in the first place? Does the Father need to test His Son? Does the Spirit suspect a weakness in the resolve of the Lamb to be sacrificed? Why is Jesus tempted in the desert? And how do these temptations lead him and us with him to Jerusalem and the Cross?

With a smudge of ash on the forehead and the solemn greeting on Ash Wednesday, “From dust you were made, to dust you will return,” we begin in earnest another Lenten trek with Christ to Jerusalem and his Cross. What are we marking with these ashes? What does that frightful greeting bring to mind? First, we are beckoned by an undeniable reality: our mortality, our frailty as creatures: the inevitability of death. Ash Wednesday is a crowded day at Church because we know we are dust and breath and that eventually we will die. Those ashes mark us as impermanent things…and they are a blessing on our transience. Second, we are summoned on Ash Wednesday to commit ourselves to the forty day/forty night trek across the Lenten desert with Christ. Nowhere else will our frailty, our weakness be tested so completely. Random chance, freak accident may surprise us with a test of faith and courage, but at no other time in the year do we knowingly step up, stare the Devil in the eye, and dare him to tempt us. Lent is our bravest Christian adventure. Finally, third, we are reminded again that though we are frail creatures subject to devilish temptation and the chaos of nature’s chance, we are Creatures—Made Beings, beings made, created in the image and likeness of a loving Creator! And what’s more, we are Redeemed Creatures—finally, mercifully saved creatures, loved into the Father through His Son by the Spirit. This is who we are as we touch the first tempting grains of Lenten sand.

Now that we are reminded of who we are, let’s go back to my first questions: why is Jesus tempted in the desert? And how do these temptations lead him and us with him to Jerusalem and the Cross? We have already run into the question, or one almost exactly like it: why must Jesus, the sinless Son of God, be baptized? Jesus is tempted for the same reason that he is baptized. For us. Jesus is brought through the desert to Jerusalem and his Cross for us as one of us. Fully human. A man like us in every way but one: he was without his own sin. With needs, passions, hurts, loves, and temptations, the Son of God was made flesh by the Spirit through his mother and ours, the virginal Mary. Why? So that every human wound, every human frailty, every human sin could be healed. His Cross—the tool of his torture and death—is our medicinal tool of salvation. Fully human, fully divine, he was baptized to baptize human flesh. He was tempted to temper human flesh against temptation. And he died so that we might live.
The story of the Fall told to us in Genesis tell us that our first father, Adam, was tempted to become a god in disobedience to God. He failed. Our first mother, Eve, was tempted to become a god in disobedience to God. She failed. Mary, the new Eve, was tempted by the Spirit to give flesh and birth to God, Jesus the new Adam, the Christ. She said YES! And as Paul teaches the Romans, “For if, by the transgression of [ the one Adam], death came to reign in life through [him], how much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the gift of [salvation] come to reign in life through the one Jesus Christ.” Through the living and dying of Christ then we come to “reign in life” as Christs, New Adams and New Eves. And because of our baptism into the Body of Christ and because we eat his body and drink his blood at the eucharistic altar, we march through the desert of Lent guarded against the wiles of disobedience, protected against the lie that brings us constantly to the brink of damnation, the lie that we can become gods without God.
We have forty days and forty nights to confront head on the One Sin that all sins call “Father”—the single sin of believing that we are our own gods. Every sin we assent to, every sin we give flesh and blood to gives life to the serpent’s temptation: disobey God so that you might know what it is to be God. There is no thornier path, no road so crooked as the one that starts with disobedience and travels through the arrogance of believing that we save ourselves from ourselves, that we are able to lift ourselves to heaven and accomplish reconciliation with God without God. Such a belief, and the daily habits that result from believing so, are the deadly vices that kill us over and over again, that punch us in the heart and throw us back again and again into the serpent’s company. The stripped bare audacity of the Lenten desert is our training ground, our yearly boot camp for exercising the gifts of love and mercy that always bring us, again and again, brings us back to the Father. A successful Lenten trek will bring us to Jerusalem and the Cross bare and ready to walk the passionate way with our Lord, bare and ready to die among the trash of Golgotha, and rise with him on that Last Day.

We are able to put one foot in front of the another all the way to Easter morning because Jesus did it first. Along the way we will be shown the glories of power, the majesties of celebrity and infamy, we will be offered all that the Devil has in his kingdom. We do not need to resist temptation, to fight against the black jewels of the devil’s chain, we need only remember that Jesus met the devil first, always before us, and said, “Get away, Satan!” There are no battles left for us to plan, no wars against temptation for us to fight. The last battle was fought and the war won on the Cross in Jerusalem. All that we need do is follow Christ. One foot in front of the other, walking lightly on the sand in the shadow of his healing presence.

"Quod non assumpsit, non redemit." (Gregory Nazianzen, Letter to Cledonius) H/T: Fr. Dominic Holtz, OP


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