Father THOMAS IDERGARD SJ
Homily for First Sunday of Lent
Year B: Genesis 9:8-15; Ps 51; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:12-15
St. Eugenia Catholic Church, Stockholm (English Mass)
Dear sisters and brothers in Christ,
Today’s gospel reading told us St. Mark’s version of the trials, i.e. the temptations, of Jesus in the wilderness, directly after his baptism, as final preparation for his public ministry of preaching and healing. Unlike the other Gospels, this account is both short and austere. So what does it tell us?
Jesus’s situation equals that of the first humans, living “with the wild beasts” in the original state of harmony with God and creation, in what is called “the Garden of Eden”, where they were tempted to turn their back on God. Unlike them, Jesus rejects the temptation. But Jesus’s 40 days in the wilderness also correspond to the 40 years of trials of the people of Israel in the desert, after the liberation from Egypt. Trials, making them complain over, and even turn against, God, which weakened them, and in turn increased their trials, and so on. Unlike them, Jesus however comes out of the desert, strengthened to proclaim trust in the God of Israel who will now fulfil his promise of salvation of the world. A promise realized through God’s gradually widening of his covenant with the humans throughout salvation history. Noah, whom we heard of in the first reading from the Book of Genesis, and his household being an early stage. A story, in which our second reading from First Peter sees a foreshadowing of both baptism in water, and of the Church as the saving ark. Decisive elements of the final stage of God’s covenantal work, the universal family of all believers in Christ.
We heard in the gospel that Jesus “was tempted by Satan”. The Dutch Catholic priest and author Henri Nouwen once said that “[v]ery few people believe in the devil these days, which suits the devil very well. He is always helping to circulate the news of his own death”. But the devil is real. To the first humans, the people of Israel, to Jesus himself and still to us, the devil wants to divert people from their task of serving God. The Greek word for the devil, “diabolos”, literally means the one who throws apart, separates, divides. I.e. us from God, and thus from each other, and from our true selves.
The other Gospel accounts of our Lord in the desert tell us how Satan tries to divert Jesus from his task, which is salvation of mankind through sacrifice, rejecting the cross as a means of winning the souls of humans, and instead embracing three short cuts to personal popularity: an economic one, to deliver material benefits; another one using personal gifts for different sensual pleasures, e.g. obtaining many “likes”; and a third, based on the longing to be important in the eyes of the world and its values.
When the first humans, the people of Israel and, continuously, we ourselves, fall for different versions of these temptations, Jesus resists. His human will does the will of God the Father, fully present in him, as the overall aim of all his acts. Conceived, born, raised and remaining sinless, the latter fact not being the case with the first humans, Jesus therefore is the new Adam, head of the New Israel or “the kingdom of God”, to which he now summons all who want to do the will of God, into the Church.
Telling us that Jesus “was with the wild beasts”, and at the same time “the angels looked after him”, today’s gospel reminds of the unique status of mankind in Creation. Angels are fully spiritual beings, and animals fully physical, material. Mankind, contrariwise, is a kind of a microcosm uniting and possessing both realities of God’s creation: spirit, i.e. capacity of free will, reason and ability to love; as well as material body.
The word “sin” originates from a Hebrew word meaning “missing the target”. And the target, aim, is to keep the bodily and the spiritual together within us and bring our personal whole into communion with God. Here, in the material world, in all that, which we do through our bodies, anchored, however, in the spiritual; the loving will of God, that one day will glorify our bodies in a resurrection like Christ’s. In many languages, e.g. Swedish, the word for “sin” is related to the word for “breach”. And what sin often breaks apart, is the unity of body and spirit in the human person, created for eternity and now living in the world. All inspired by the one who divides – the devil, “diabolos”.
Much of our revolt against God is about letting one side of our human reality take over. Materialism and consumerism, seeking sensual pleasures everywhere, using our corporeality and sexuality in a way opposing God’s plan etc., is all about allowing our whole person to be ruled by the physical, material; becoming brute. Correspondingly, the spiritual, non-material aspect can take over. E.g. through ideas that the most important would be what we express in words and hold intellectually, not what we de facto do. An attitude finally leading to a rejection of personal sin. Or ideas that the whole reality apart from my individual will and feelings is a social construct, for me to manipulate freely. But denying our corporeality, our bodies as boundaries and preconditions for our actions, yes, as vocations, as well as ignoring the importance of our actions in forming a character impacting our soul, is also to break down our personal whole.
Jesus Christ re-establishes the full unity of the spiritual and corporeal, of divine and material, in us humans. He rejects the temptations to break and split us, and heals our wounded human nature by anchoring it in God’s loving will. Thus, he becomes the role model for our lives at large, and concretely for the Season of Lent.
Lent is about conducting physical actions, i.e. through our bodies, of penance – like above all renunciations, more time for prayer, almsgiving and other works of mercy – training our characters so that we more easily can detach ourselves from the perishable. Not in order to reject it. But to relate to it in the right way, i.e. to stand free in relation to it. And, whatever else we have or have not, to attach ourselves stronger to God, so that an increased trust in him enables us to do more and more in and through our bodies as proclamations of his praise, like we heard in the responsorial psalm, and like it was to Jesus. As our answer in gratitude to his self-giving love, over and over again shown through Christ’s real and true return to us, body, blood, divinity and soul, in the Holy Eucharist. Amen.