Sunday, March 27, 2011

Third Sunday in Lent

Ephesians 5:1-9 / Luke 11:14-28

We can easily be led to believe that Lent, and with it the Christian dispensation, is fundamentally a moral affair. That is, we might imagine that the focus on penance, fasting, and abstinence, all the exhortations to a change of life, to a conversio morum, even all the incentives to prayer have, as their goal, the production of a more moral self. Of course, in many ways, this is true, and a supposed engagement with the Gospel that does not lead to a more profound mode of living, indeed one that does not transform the very principle by which we live, is only pretense. As St Paul reminds us, no fornicator, or unclean, or covetous person, which is a serving of idols, hath inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. His advice is likewise simple and direct: Walk then as children of the light: for the fruit of the light is in all goodness and justice and truth. So, it might well seem that the Gospel is at its root about morals that having accomplished moral uprightness, one has done all that the Gospel means to do.

However, we then turn to Christ's parabolic story of the man possessed with an unclean spirit, and we find something quite different at work. In the parable, the man has been freed from the dark spirit, whic is itself forced to walk through places without water, seeking rest: and not finding any. The man from whom the spirit had gone out finds himself living in uprightness, his soul swept and garnished. Nonetheless, his own virtue, clean, perfect, without fault, is altogether unable to resist or repel the forces arrayed against it. The unclean spirit, desirous to return to the place from which it had been cast out, returns not alone, but goeth and taketh with him seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and entering in they dwell there. This man, freed from evil, and set on the right path, living in uprightness and truth, now becomes even more a slave to darkness — And the last state of that man becomes worse than the first.

What many Christians ignore at their peril is that, while the Incarnation and the Paschal mystery, the whole work of the missions of the Son and the Spirit, had and have as their goal the salvation and deification of the elect, they also serve other ends, not the least of which is the decisive overthrowing of the dominion of the devil and his angels. As Jesus reminds his hearers, when a strong man armed, that is the devil, keepeth his court, that is the world, and especially those sons of Adam still bound by the corruption of sin, those things are at peace, which is to say safely in his power, which he possesseth. The only hope, the only safety, is Christ, the stronger than he who has come upon him and overcome him and will take away all his armor wherein he trusted, and will distribute his spoils.

This is why being with Christ is so crucial to our happiness, and why the establishment of the kingdom cannot be reduced to the moral and spiritual restoration of human persons. There are forces, not human but angelic, dark and powerful spirits, who even bent and condemned as they are surpass the might of even the most moral of men, and these same spirits are irrevocably committed by their own self-condemnation to the corruption and ruin of those whom God loves. It is in Christ, and in Christ alone, that we have the defense of the stronger man, the man who can keep us safe from those that would lead us into final impenitence, would induce us to tarnish the beauty of the image restored and glorified in us by the waters of baptism. Apart from him, no human moral effort however strong, no spiritual insight however clear, can maintain the good which we have attained and by which we seek to live. He that is not with Me is against Me: and he that gathereth not with Me scattereth.

Of course, this is also why we can live in hope and confidence, and not in craven fear of Satan and the fell powers of the nether world. Satan, and not only he, but all his hellish hosts, have by the power of the Cross been overcome. We have one stronger than he who died and lives forever, pleading at the right hand of the Father, and we are befriended by the Spirit, the Advocate whose very holiness casts away in holy disdain the petty and cruel words of the Accuser. For we were heretofore in darkness: but now in the light of the Lord. Let is then not look back. Let no man, nor demon of Hell, deceive us with vain words that tempt us to despair for our past failures, or lull us into false confidence in our present strength, the armor in which we trusted. Let us instead trust in Christ and in him alone, and abide among the blessed who hear the word of God, and keep it.

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