Father THOMAS IDERGARD SJ
Homily for First Sunday of Lent
Year C: Deuteronomy 26:4-10; Ps 25; Romans 10:8-13; Luke 4:1-13
St. Eugenia Catholic Church, Stockholm (English Mass)
Dear sisters and brothers in Christ,
Let us ask ourselves a tough question: am I a better Christian now than I was a year ago? Am I holier? Am I more like Christ? Am I on a good way to become a saint, which is the sole purpose of my life? If the question makes you uncomfortable, it is very good. Then you understand Jesus Christ’s love for you. He loves us too much to let us be lazy. Instead, he is like a good coach, always encouraging us to grow, to take our next step. Never on our own. Always aided by him.
When we sense standstill in our spiritual life, with the same temptations, falls and sins, a reason is often that the real rootsof our selfishness still need to be dealt with. Indeed, we try to cut off all those branches of impatience, greed, lust, dishonesty etc., but the roots are still intact, so the branches keep growing back. In Jesus’s temptations in the desert, described in today’s gospel, we can identify these sinful roots. In each one of us, one may be stronger than the others, although we all have all, as they come with the heritage of original sin.
By the way, note that the gospel passage does not speak of a mystical “force”, or anyway its “dark side”, trying to influence Jesus. We hear of someone with whom our Lord has a direct, interpersonal exchange. In other words, we are reminded of the existence of the devil. A fact that too much of modern Christianity wants to forget or explain away because of its inconvenience, as truth quite often is in a world dominated by lies, by the way; and just as if the purpose of Christian faith was to create temporal feelgood, which it is not, just look at what happened to our Lord.
Pope St. Paul VI said in a speech 1972: “It is a departure from … biblical Church teaching to refuse to knowledge the Devil’s existence; to regard him as a self-sustaining principle who, unlike other creatures, does not owe his origin to God; or to explain the Devil as a pseudo-reality, a conceptual, fanciful personification of the unknown causes of our misfortunes.” In other words: the mystery of evil, related to the almighty and all-good God, must only be understood as emanating from a personal “no” to God’s offering of communion with him from a created being of a high ontological stage, in turn inspiring other persons with free will in creation to misuse this will.
The root sins exposed by the devil in the gospel, in no way demand of Jesus to abandon God, just to put another will in the first place so that God comes second. It is as if the devil has modest claims, saying “you can keep God in your life, but first strive for this, then go to him”, while of course knowing that by putting something else on the throne of one’s life, God stepwise will develop into a fairy tale figure with white beard on a cloud.
The temptation to turn stone into bread expresses the will to material wealth, to take, to possess. I.e. opposite to the attitude of sacrifice of love, personalized and fulfilled by Christ and prefigured in God’s covenant with Israel, as presented in our first reading from the Book of Deuteronomy. The temptation to worship the devil, and note, without necessarily ceasing to worship God, expresses the will to power, and to do anything to have it. And the temptation to jump from the temple wall expresses the will to honour, popularity and other sensual pleasures, even, as we heard, with an individualistic and thus false Scripture interpretation, just like e.g. today’s widespread misconception that there are no sexual sins anymore. Material wealth, power, honour, popularity and sensual pleasures are in themselves neutral, must not be bad; in many cases, they are good in the sense that we can do good, or experience closeness to the ultimate Good, with them. But if they become the answer to the question where we look for fulfilment, put into the centre, of our life, turn into carriers of meaning, they make us give in to temptations to forget the true aim of life: to learn to know, love and serve God and therethrough win eternal salvation. In this way, they become roots to our refusal to do God’s will, which is to love.
Jesus, however, does not only present the antidote, he in fact is the antidote. His inner disposition gives three insights as counsels on how to tear up the roots. The insight that God’s reality is greater than anything visible and material gives what in Christian tradition is known as poverty. The insight that God is the sheer act of being, unconditional, sharing existence with everything created, us included, fully conditional, turns into obedience. And the insight that individual wills, impulses and views must be subordinated to the Good, seek to realize the Truth, “your truth and … your goodness”, i.e. the Lord’s, as we heard in the responsorial psalm, forms chastity.
Poverty, obedience and chastity. Depending on vocation and life-status, the evangelical counsels are manifested differently. But the Season of Lent invites all Christians of all vocations and statuses to take time to cultivate them. If we identify our most problematic root sin, we can direct our spiritual work more intelligently to which evangelical counsel we have to follow more closely.
What we give up, or add to our lives, for Lent must have Christ, not satisfaction over heroic asceticism, as sole aim and meaning. A sound practice of abstinence thus must be accompanied, yes, can even consist, by an increase of spiritual practices at the expense of other activities: i.e. personal prayer, family prayer, Bible reading, sacramental confession and Mass attendance, over and above Sundays. As our second reading from the Letter to the Romans reminded us, our faith, unlike all other religions, gives everyone who believes, no matter human divisions and categories, only through faith, a personal relation and access to God, through his incarnate Son, Jesus Christ. Liturgical, sacramental and devotional rituals do not work like magic, so that God does or does not do this if only we do that; no, with our cooperation, they enable and strengthen our personal relationship to the God who seeks communion with us.
Dear friends, if you allow Jesus Christ to deal with the largest or most problematic root of that which separates you from God and God’s will; if you strive to follow and manifest the particular, curative evangelical counsel in a higher degree, removing obstacles through your Lenten practices, then you will become a better Christian. And thus, welcome next year’s uncomfortable question as a helpful reminder of what still remains for you to allow Christ to train and help you with, yet a little more. On your way to heaven. To the greater glory of God. Amen.