NB. Deacon is preaching at OLR this evening. Below is one of the first homilies I preached as a priest. It's an experimental piece that some found disturbing. . .
1st Sunday of Lent 2006
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Church of the Incarnation, University of Dallas
I find him sitting with his back against a rock, staring at the heat waving above the dry-cracked river bed. He smells of hot cedar smoke, burnt bees’ wax, and drying sweat. When my shadow touches his bare feet, he moves them away and turns as if to look at me, then stops and stares again at the blistering sand. I wave my hand to greet him, my shadow again touching his feet and legs. This time he doesn’t move. It’s always the same with him. He knows I’m here. Right here with him. But he stubbornly ignores me or moves away at my dark touch. I take a deep breath, gather my silk robes around my legs to sit, and as I fall into place in front of him, he sighs and begins to pray aloud. Scratchy, mumbling nonsense. Groveling little bits of spontaneous poetry and half-remembered words and phrases stolen from thin, crumbling scrolls. I just listen and wait. Most days we sit together in silence like this, waiting on one another.
When the sun touches the tallest mountain, he stops muttering. The dry burn of the desert wind eases a bit. There’s a promise of wet air, of moisture from somewhere out of the north. I clear my throat. I see a small smile on his lips. Just as I open my mouth to argue again, wild beasts begin to gather near us. This happens every night about this time. And I am surprised again, always surprised, by the fierce brilliance of the crown of angels that seems to float miles away behind his head. Tensed to fight, they just hold there radiating His glory—a sky crowded with angelic mirrors flashing His beauty. How very servile of them to pose so. How very grand it all is. A perfect waste of power.
I catch him watching me watch his ministers. You see, he knows that I know that he won’t call them. He could. No doubt. But he won’t. It’s a matter to pride with him. That’s my secret weapon: his pride. He’s the favored Son. I’m the fallen Daystar. He’s the Anointed One. I’m the Marked One. He is Righteousness and I am Rebellion. And I’m here, again, to show him the error of his Way, to offer him something far better than a life wasted on dumb humility, unrequited love, and pointless sacrifice. I am here to tempt him away from his self-destructive path, away from the terrible, bloody death that those dirty little apes he loves so much will give him. I will show him riches, power, and his own pride. I will tempt him to resist me on his own, without those shiny angels coming to his rescue!
I gather myself for the show, for the theatre of the absurd that will surely wake him up to his desperate folly. But before I can collect myself fully, he starts to chuckle. Just a small laugh at first. Then he burst out with a deep guffaw! A belly laugh from the Son of God. I just stare at him. Surely the heat has driven him mad. He stops. And he opens his eyes, looking at me, through me, right to the center of the goodness that is my very existence. I fumble for an excuse, some reason to protest the invasion of my privacy, but I can only stare back at the fullness of beauty, goodness, and truth that He Is.
Without moving he says, “Perdition, you are here again to lie to me, to put between me and our Father a temptation. Do it then.” I swallow hard and plead, “My Lord, can’t you see that the course laid out for you is disastrous? Can’t you see the possibilities for us, the potential of our rule if you would turn to me for help? Can’t you see your ignominious end? The scandal of it!” He chuckles again, “You are worried about scandal? Try another one, Deceiver. Put yourself behind me so that I may go forward. You are dust and wind.” He gently waves his hand toward the cooling desert. I grow angry at his dismissal, “Wow! You really are stupidity itself, aren’t you. Wasted power, wasted opportunities.”
I sputter for a while longer, hoping that my indignity at his rudeness will move him to talk to me again. Nothing. I conjure images of wealth—jewels, fine horses, palaces. Nothing. I conjure images of power—a throne for the worlds, slaves, armies. Nothing. Finally, I conjure images of personal dignity—his freedom from the trails ahead, the esteem of his rabbinical colleagues, the love of the crowds cheering him. Nothing. Again, nothing.
I gird my silk robes, bracing myself for one final assault on this mulish Nazarene. I shout at him: “You’re proud! It’s pride that makes you think you are better than my gifts, too good to pick up what I give you. Pride!” He shifts his feet under him, rises to stand before me. He looks over my head as if reading a text behind me, “You are nothing, brother. Shapes, shadows, quick glimpses, and shallow sighs.” My indignity is unmatchable! “I am Lucifer, Morning Light! I am First Chosen of the Angels! I know who I am!” His eyes move to focus on mine. He squints against a finally setting sun, “I will teach you who you are. Fallen creature. Sinner. Liar. Killer of Hope. Tempter. I know your true names: Perdition. Chaos. Betrayal. You cannot win with me because I am driven here by the Spirit of our Father to fast and pray and to prepare myself for what I am about.”
Panicked, I reach for what I have, anything at all, and say, “They won’t love you for your sacrifice, you know? They will not come to you after you are betrayed and convicted, and sent into the dead ground. They will deny you. They will run and hide and waste time pointing fingers and accusing one another. I will make sure that they forget you.” If anything he looked calmer, “Yes, I suppose you will. But they like me will have their forty days in the desert, their time and place apart to burn away the excess, to trim the burdensome and ridiculous, to pray and serve, and to remember that they are dust—dust given life by our Father’s breath and made holy in His love for them.”
What arrogance! The man is insane. I have to ask, “You came into this dead waste to pray and serve and to remember that you are dust? You? The favored Son? The Messiah? You fled to this place? Why? Why would you do such a stupid thing?” Again, he smiles slightly at me, at my vehemence, and says, “I will teach you again, Satan. I am in this desert for forty days to remember the journey of Moses and his people out of slavery. I am in this desert for forty days to teach those to come how to live with our Father. I am here to survive with Him alone, to live stripped of pretense, theatre, guile, and luxurious want. I am here so that those whom you will tempt tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow will know that they need only to call upon the Father’s mercy, to repent, believe the gospel, and then know that they are free of you forever.” His eyes blaze for a moment, then calm again.
I give up! My time with him is up anyway. My time with him is wasted breath. You, you however, well, you’re just beginning, aren’t you? What, day five or six, now, of the forty? Come, let me show you to my favorite rock and the riches I can offer you. Let me show you my toys, my little inventions, and help you choose a Way more to my…I mean…your liking.
So tell me, little ones, what tempts you?
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