Creating Something Divine
by Fr. Gabriel Stack, O.Praem.
The first Sunday of Lent offers one of the shortest texts for a Gospel in the whole liturgical year. It is only sixty-four words. St. Mark’s account of the Temptation in the Desert takes just two verses and is about as succinct as one can be. Now, I am not the evangelist Mark. So don’t expect a short sermon. Settle in. And listen in.
After Jesus was baptized, but before He began His three years of public ministry, St. Mark tells us that the Spirit “drove Jesus out into the desert,” where He experienced temptation – because we do.
Throughout the bible, the desert is often referred to a place of testing, where we experience our weakness and need for our God. The desert, more than a geographical location, is a theological place where one is forced to confront the bare truth. The desert is the original reality show.
Temptations come in many sizes and shapes. Years ago I was a young seminarian and learning to pray the psalms. Psalm 55 laments the betrayal by a friend. To quote the psalmist …
My heart is stricken within me,
death’s terror is on me,
trembling and fear fall upon me
and horror overwhelms me.
O that I had wings like a dove
to fly away and be at rest.
So I would escape far away
and take refuge in the desert.
I would hasten to find a shelter
from the raging wind,
from the destructive storm, O Lord,
and from their plotting tongues.
If this had been done by an enemy
I could bear his taunts.
If a rival had risen against me,
I could hide from him.
But it is you, my own companion,
my intimate friend!
How close was the friendship between us.
We talked together in harmony
in the house of God.
From the first time I read it, I recognized that this psalm referred to a childhood friend. Or I should say, “who was once a friend.” I had this same reflection for years. One day God’s grace helped me to see that the close friend who really did me in – wasn’t anyone other than myself. My mom was right; sometimes I am my own worst enemy. For years I was bound by the real but invisible chains of self-pity. Only in retrospect did I see how I had given into the temptation of self-justification which is only the outer garment of pride.
The truth of the matter is that sin – both the original and our own personal sin – has thwarted God’s plan of happiness for our lives and, by extension, for much of our world.
We all know that we must all face trials and temptation. We all know, too, we are capable of overcoming temptation in the victory already won by Christ. St Augustine explains why with a poetic parallelism that reaches from the annunciation to the resurrection. “Christ took His flesh from you and in return gave you the salvation that resides in Him. He took your death for Himself and gave you His life. He took the shame you deserved and gave you the honor that was His. Consequently, He took your temptation and gave you His victory.”
The question is, do we sincerely and honestly want to overcome trial and temptation? The fact that we are capable of overcoming does not do away with our inherited woundedness or with the various physiological or psychological influences that hinder the work of healing.
I admit there is a sense of risk for us in Lent. But there is also a sense of optimism; we are assured of victory, provided that we use the means which Christ offers us.
WHAT ARE THESE MEANS?
Reshaping or repurposing all the things that have brought us to ruin previously with the strength of Christ and the power of His sacraments. And triumphing.
That the tools of defeat become the tools of victory in God’s plan for us is beautifully symbolized here in our parish church. Look above me. The crown of thorns precedes the arc of triumph.
For the adult preparing for baptism, Lent is a time for the deliberate acquisition of these means. For those who are already fully initiated, it is the time for learning anew how to use the means more wisely and more fully.
To conclude in exactly sixty-four words. Lent is the time that asks believers for the courage to judge where they are, what they are seeking, and how much they really understand the Christian life. And with the strength provided by Christ, to step forward – to sincerely and honestly reform their lives. In short, the believer is to collaborate with God in creating something divine.
Queen Esther was a uniquely pleasing person to behold. We hear this repeatedly throughout her story and, ultimately, are told that she “found grace and favor in the eyes of all who saw her.”
How beautiful a thing it is that God has given us as the first and greatest commandment to love Him with our whole heart, mind and strength. For what could be more natural than to love the source of our being with our whole being; what could be more desirable than to love without limits the Good which is unlimited.
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