First Sunday in Lent
’Who do you think you are?’ Today we return to our origins and remember who we are, how we are meant to be. We see where life was meant to be shared [Genesis], God's word was perverted and God’s image in people (others and ourselves) was disfigured and maimed. We are inundated with competing ideas about life, how to live, and many distortions of God’s image.
The ancient scripture readings are very contemporary: about lives and inconsistencies, of struggles to be faithful, of broken relationships, of the search for wisdom, the fullness of life, of a meaningful relationship with God and one another that embraces a compassionate responsibility for every living being. Can we trek with Jesus into the wilderness to learn who we are, that we assume the power we have as images of God, and be freed from whatever makes us self-centred to become the loving people we were created to be? After his baptism and being revealed by the Spirit as God’s own beloved, Jesus needed to discern what that meant. Who or what will define his identity? Will it be the God who defines us as beloved or some subtle other power whether it be patriarchy, hierarchy, government, or corporation.
Lent is not about rejecting self-love. Jesus constantly affirmed that each creature is loved by God – a love always self-offering love that enables us to contribute to others and protect creation. But as Norman Wirzba says ‘Passions cloud vision. They prevent people from seeing others as creatures beloved and blessed by God. A life lived according to the passions – traditionally seven in number: gluttony, unchastity, avarice, anger, dejection, listlessness, and pride – is so dangerous because it results in the tyranny of creations and the degradation of the world. The passions mobilise an improper self-love in which others must serve my hunger, my sexual ambitions, my desire for wealth or power, my frustration with and circumstances and events, my insecurities and boredom, or my need to be important.’ (The Agrarian Spirit).
In her book The Unexpected Joy of the Ordinary, Catherine Gray, after a quest for an extraordinary life ended in addictions and depression learned to mine the wonder in the ordinary. Previously, she wanted to work on glossy women’s magazines and lead a charmed, gilded and extraordinary life. As she grew accustomed to this she wanted more and always sought and wanted to be even more extraordinary. She thought that people who were happy with their lot were naïve and had the wool pulled over their eyes, settling for the substandard and never attaining the peaks she sought. However, her quest for the extraordinary, to her surprise, led to alcohol addiction. She spent her 20’s perpetually disappointed and entered her early 30’s in a panic because of the life boxed she was unable to tick. As her peers succeeded, she felt more hopeless. Suicidal thoughts followed depression especially as drank too much. She went with men who were not bothered with her. She alienated her work contacts. She Googled ‘Painless ways to commit suicide’ but was blocked by a deterrent site which saved her life. She realised there is no painless way and was made aware of the great distress it would cause her loved ones. With her father’s help she was able to change her perceptions. The joy in the ordinary allowed her to notice the beauty around her and not let everyday pleasures go unnoticed. She came to see that an ordinary day begins to create the same sensation as an extraordinary day. The sum of its parts creates the same whole. Abel Herzberg, a Dutch writer and philosopher, tells a story of a rabbi who saw his son deep in prayer. In the corner of the room was a cradle with a crying baby. The rabbi asks his son, ‘Can’t you hear that there is baby crying in this room? The son replied, ‘Father, I was lost in God.’ And the rabbi said, ‘Whoever is lost in God can see the very fly crawling up the wall'” (Abel Herzberg, Brieven aan mijn kleinzoon [Letters to my Grandson], Amsterdam: Querido, 1985).
Communities, nations, and individuals are addicted to immediate satisfaction that leads to exploitative behaviour and corporate irresponsibility. Greed has led to a shortage of resources for many, human trafficking and stolen wages, unhealthy dependence on fossil fuels, climate change and devastation of natural resources and the extinction of many species. The desire for power and fame, as just mentioned, has led to celebrity voyeurism, dissatisfaction with quiet and gentle living, and an increasing sense of powerlessness among those who are unable to reach the heights of fame that our world seems to demand. Jesus’ last temptation was to trade worship for power. The tempter’s message seems to be one to centre our lives on worldly power and we will then share in that power. Lent offers an opportunity to abandon the centres of power and powerful ambitions. It might seem like opting for weakness, but it leads to a long-distance view where the huge, the large, swallows but the small and vulnerable. From the positions of power and ambition human beings can be lost in the dust. The point is that for Jesus, human beings are ordinary people with names and faces, some live with disabilities, others blind, some with dead children in their arms – all wounded. Jesus rejected the empty promises of a society that puts one individual before another. And Lent is a time for us to re-commit to a more just and equitable society. All around as temptations, rhetoric and empty promises that tell us there are only winners in this world and losers do not count. Obtaining worldly power demands turning one’s back on God, our sisters and brothers – particularly the most vulnerable and the rest of creation. Jesus’ example of facing temptation and overcoming it reminds us that justice can only be done as we learn to live lives of discipline and simplicity, of consideration and sharing, of prayer and service.
Pope Francis has described the devil’s kingdoms as the places where ‘everything comes under the laws of competition ... where the powerful feed upon the powerless’ (Evangelii Gaudium, ‘The Joy of the Gospel,’ #53). Jesus offers an unequivocal ‘no’ to the idolatry of power; he declines a life that is dedicated to service of self rather than love, compassion, solidarity and justice. There is a rejection of the enticements to power and greed the source of violence and division that was depicted in Genesis. The call to Jesus and to us is to say ‘yes’ to our identity as God’s beloved and its implications in our lives. Our humanity is constantly attacked: to think small, to be mean; to be loveless; to seek violent ways of responding to conflict; to seek the easy way out.
The gospel is about seeing, hearing and touching; how we grow in compassion; how love and compassion with justice can be made visible; how we stand with others and be there for them; how to bring hope to the story of disfigurement and maiming in others and in creation. Can we listen to Jesus with ears open to the truth? Can we make a space (in prayer) to be more sensitive to others and respond in ways that touch them that lead to healing? Can we hear God clamouring through the voices and situations of people around us? Can we allow our heart to be broken open so that the world can enter? Jesus models a way to be human; how we can be people with a heart and passion of God for humanity and creation. He models ways to resist whatever does not promote fullness of life for all.
We see in the temptations the drive to substitute the ordinary for the extraordinary; self-centredness for solidarity; obsession with reputation and power for vulnerability; and the need to control and manipulate rather than relinquish control.
When presented with political power in the world and tempted to show his stuff and muster his magic, Jesus reserves glory for God alone. This is the power that goes into arms manufacturing, development of nuclear weapons, despoliation of forests and jungles for agriculture and mining and substituting vengeance and revenge as a mistaken short cut to peace. The story of temptations should be read with an eye towards the attitudes of human beings toward power - those attitudes present in Jesus' time as well as those attitudes we see present in our time.
Jesus offers an alternative to the way of power and domination of the world. The sin of the ‘first humans’ was to reject their humanness. Jesus would not step outside the confines of humanity. Even when ‘good ends’ were dangled in front of him, he resisted displays of control, power, domination and manipulation. He chose to draw people to himself by fully identifying with them and going into the wilderness. That is where the people are!!
In the movie Of Gods and Men seven foreign Trappist monks during Algeria’s civil war in the 1990’s are forced to make choices. As the witnessed to a life of prayer, contemplation and providing medical assistance, education and other services amongst poor Muslim people, they faced the intense growth of terrorism. People were bullied, harassed, and murdered. A choice was required. Would they leave for safety or stay with the people and face certain death? In this wilderness they struggled with their fears, faith and passion. What would they/we decide? The monks decided to stay and were murdered. Like Jesus in the wilderness of his whole life, we are offered a way of seeing a world transformed by the Spirit of Jesus and living differently. Lent is about healing - our healing and the world’s healing; about connecting with one another, the environment and God; about redistribution and solidarity; about compassion; about making God’s heart visible in our lives.
Rev Peter J. Gomes says, ‘The question should not be 'What would Jesus do?' but rather, more dangerously, 'What would Jesus have me do?' The onus is on us. Jesus asks us to live up to our full humanity; to live in the full implication of our human gifts. This can be quite demanding. Let us pray that we may recognize and reject the ways we, our church and our society, are continually tempted to betray our vocation to be images of God.