Sunday, March 13, 2011

First Sunday in Lent

2 Corinthians 6:1-10 / Matthew 4:1-11

"The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door ..."
Fredric Brown, "Knock," Thrilling Wonder Stories (1948)

Some people speak of a fear of being alone. Now, there is a kind of dread, a sense of emptiness, that comes from discovering, or at least feeling, that one is altogether alone. However, if one is not otherwise compromised, if one is not in any immediate danger, then fear is probably not what we feel when alone. After all, if we knew that in fact no one else were around, why would we be afraid to pass by abandoned buildings, or the open doors of dark cellars, or the deep woods on a moonless night? Surely what we fear is not being alone, but rather being not quite alone. It is not the dread that no one else is there is the darkness that alarms us, but rather the horror that someone, or something does lurk there, just out of sight.

Our Gospel today reminds us that we are not alone. On the one hand, this can, and right proportion should, be a reason for caution, if not for fear. The human journey to God is not simply the story of the individual human person and his Creator, nor even all human persons, and their relation to one another and to God. There are, unhappily for us, intelligences vastly superior to ours, untiring as they are not burdened by the limits of the flesh, bent altogether in their will to oppose God by seeking to undo all that he loves. There are, that is, the Devil and his angels, the same Devil who had the temerity to tempt the very Son of God.

Of course, the Gospel also reminds us that there are others who surround us, and who wish only our good. There are, to be sure, the ministering spirits, who served Jesus in the desert after his fast and his confrontation with the Accuser. More than that, there is the Holy Spirit, God himself, the Gift of God, by whose impulse the Son, the Word made flesh, went into the desert to be tempted by the Devil.

It would be too easy to imagine our return to God as a voyage undertaken alone. The Fallen One actually depends on this misapprehension as he intended it for Jesus. The Devil hoped to draw Jesus into believing that his own best hopes, for physical survival, for protection from harm, and for universal acclaim and the building of a kingdom, depended on his resources alone. He hoped that Jesus, even knowing that the Devil was a wicked spirit, would, by resolving a fear of needing to make his mark on the world on his own, also make common cause with the one who was his enemy, if only to soften the dull pain of loneliness.

Jesus knew, however, he was not, and never would be alone. He knew his Father, and knew the presence of the Comforter, the Holy Spirit. In this, he meant to reassure us as well. He meant, in undergoing the blasphemous temptations of the Devil to show us with clarity that we are no more alone to face the challenges of the world than he. In receiving the assaults of the Evil One, he unmasks for us the bent and terrible powers that are, more than any human adversary, our true enemies, and in overcoming the temptations, he points the way for all of us who worry our own strength will not avail.

The fact is that our strength is not enough, but it need not be. We are not men sitting alone in a room, hearing a knock at the door. We are surrounded by an innumerable company of those who love us beyond our knowing, the ranks of angels who minister to Christ in ministering to his Body. We are, more than that, and infinitely so, never deprived of the company of our Lord, who shows the way, nor of the Spirit, who leads us there and sustains us along the path.

We need not fear the terror that knocks on our door. We are not alone.

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