Sunday, March 9, 2014

First Sunday of Lent (A)

Genesis 2:7-9; 3:1-7 / Romans 5:12-19 / Matthew 4:1-11

We have, since Lent began only a few days ago, no doubt heard much about those three foundations of our Lenten discipline, namely, fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. There is, to be sure, good reason to have reminded ourselves of these indispensable means of turning back to God, of setting ourselves on the path to righteousness and the joy of the empty Tomb. Moreover, so clear are these themes in the early days of our Lenten reading that we can find them without too much difficulty even in those selections from the Scriptures set before us today. Might we not see in Jesus' powerful and decisive refusals of his temptations after the forty days in the desert an affirmation of these foundations? In Jesus' reminder that man does not live by bread alone, uttered even in his own hunger, do we not hear and discover the true meaning of fasting? In his refusal to put God to the test, are we not given important directives about the kind of prayer pleasing to God? In his clear rejection of having the world meet his needs and desires by his service to the Devil, does not Jesus turn this on its head, committing himself to serve God alone through meeting the needs and hopes of the world, and so outline for us the right inspiration of almsgiving?

In contrast, we can also see in Eve's first sin in the Garden an image of what we repeat daily in our own sinful lives precisely by failing to submit to the triple discipline of Lent. When Eve listened to the words of the serpent, rather than the clear words of the Lord, that warning she herself had just repeated, she set out precisely the life of a soul which fails to pray. When she gazed upon the fruit and attended to its goodness, and so neglected what she knew, recognizing only that it was good for food, and pleasing both to the eyes and for wisdom, she played out for us the turning away from good in a life which has never fasted. When she offered the fruit to her husband Adam, and when he took what she ought never to have offered, they enacted the very kind of illicit exchange, promoting and indulging false and imagined needs, which makes a mockery of the true generosity that is the soul of almsgiving.

All of this is quite true, but it misses something crucial, another deep and important truth set before us as we begin our Lent. What this retelling misses is precisely the fact that the proper context of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving involves not merely us and God, but a third and by no means disinterested party. Said plainly, we have forgotten the Devil. It can perhaps be assuring to imagine that our faults and cravings, our weaknesses and the desires of our heart, are our affair alone. It can perhaps even be soothing for the repentant sinner with a blackened soul to think that the path before him to God, while doubtlessly hard and long, is straight and clear. The truth, however, is quite different. The truth is that there exists someone who has committed the whole of his life to undoing the work of God, someone unimaginably more powerful, more intelligent, more cunning than we are, and who has at his disposal countless legions of similarly minded spirits who tirelessly seek our undoing.

In reminding us of the Devil at the beginning of Lent, the Church wants us to attend to two important truths. The first is that Lent is not merely an annual project of moral improvement. That is, Lent does not merely call upon us one more time to try to acquire good or better habits while pruning away bad or unhelpful ones. Lent is not a gymnasium, a spa, or a sanitarium. Lent, we are reminded, is a military exercise on a battlefield. Our disciplines, however peaceful they are and must be on the physical plane, however much they call from us not less but greater acts of charity to our neighbor, are nonetheless weapons of war, the spiritual armaments that we need to be equipped against our murderous foe, the Evil One, the Devil.

At the same time, we are reminded of the Devil precisely to remind us of what he cannot do. The Devil is not the all-powerful Lord of Evil, the dark parallel of God. He is a creature with limits. More than that, while the Devil and his angels may be our foes in battle, they are the enemy forces in a ware that they have already lost. Already in Jesus' temptation in the desert, we are meant to see not the Devil's power, but his impotence against the Victor, who is also our Savior and Friend, Jesus Christ. By the Cross and the power of his Blood, Jesus has definitively broken the power of Hell, and it has no power to prevail over those whom Jesus has claimed as his own. As Paul reminds us in the Epistle to the Romans, it was by man's work, by the collusion of Adam and Eve with the temptations of the serpent, that death and sin entered the world. Even before his defeat by Christ, our first parents had what they needed to repel our ancient Foe. Now that we have Jesus Christ as our Head, we are not less, but better equipped to put to flight the Devil and his angels.

This is why we ought not to fear the Devil as though he can undo the work of God, even while we must be attentive to the fact that, until he is finally and unequivocally bound in the Final Judgment, we will have to contend with him. The example of Eve's failure is meant to recall for us that, even in a condition of grace, we ought not be inattentive to the gifts of God, and so become easy prey for the Devil. However, our Gospel, our Good News, is that the work of Christ in the desert, indeed the whole of his saving work, remind us that the Devil not only does not have the final say, but we also can drive him off even at his first promptings. We have, as our companion none other than Jesus Christ, the very Son of God, and as our Advocate the Holy Spirit. With God himself dwelling within us and striving for us, without any foolhardiness concerning the malice of our Enemy, how much more joy and hope we ought to know this Lent in the love and goodwill of our Friend.

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