How good to begin this Sunday with the Litany of the Saints! Immediately we feel helped. Whenever the Litany of the Saints is sung, it’s because something big is going to happen: a divine event. The next time we will hear it will be at the Easter Vigil as we process to the font for a baptism. We sing it before ordinations and before religious professions and the taking of vows. It’s always an overture to God’s action. So, we sing it today entering Lent and Easter.
In today’s Collect, we prayed to “grow in understanding of the riches hidden in Christ”. In the spiritual springtime of Lent, this is the new growth we’re asking for. On the spiritual journey of Lent, this is the treasure we’re seeking.
What are these “hidden riches”? I think they’re what Mary “treasured” in her heart. They’re what the first Christians tried to spell out in the New Testament. They’re the truth the Holy Spirit leads us into.
I’d like to stay with this phrase: “riches hidden in Christ”.
Surely, they’re what the devil was trying to get his claws on in the desert, tempting Jesus. “If you are the Son of God”, he says twice. He’s like someone trying to break the code of an enemy, like a thief trying the keys. He wants to break in and seize the hidden riches he suspects are there, though they baffle him. He’s the stealer and spoiler. He senses that Jesus’ riches are for us as well, and wants neither Jesus nor us to have them. Envy is his motive.
“Be off, Satan!” Three times, Jesus rebuffs him, using the book of Deuteronomy, the book where Israel renews its relationship with God in the desert. Jesus guards his richness, “and angels appeared and looked after him.” So, again, what is this richness? Isn’t it simply who he is? Isn’t it his most intimate identity? And what is that? The whole New Testament gives its answer, and Mary, and the Holy Spirit and our faith. Jesus is the Son of the Father, the only-begotten Son who is in the bosom of the Father, the beloved Son. He’s the Son who can only do what he sees the Father doing. His whole existence is love and obedience and accomplishment of the work his Father has given him. He’s the One whose bond with the Father, though stretched in Gethsemane and on the Cross to breaking point, never does break. Jesus’ wealth is this relationship. “I am not alone, for the Father is with me” (John 16:32). “This my beloved Son”, says the Voice at his baptism (Mt 3:17). “This is my beloved Son” says the Voice again at the Transfiguration (Mt 16:5). And at the Resurrection: “You are my Son; today I have begotten you” (cf. Heb 1:5).
This sonship had its first sketch in Adam, Adam who stands for us all. And the serpent stole it, destroying trust, leaving us “naked” as Genesis says; the bond broken, connection gone; leaving us out of orbit, desperately looking for landing places, investing our identity in secondary or tertiary things: in our human relationships, our sexuality, our intelligence, profession, social status, achievements, skills, our ethnicity or our nationality or in what others say of us or our looks or clothes. All things fine in their place, as spokes of the wheel, but not the hub or the core or what underpins and unites everything else. Not what stands when our usual supports crumble. Not our real richness.
It’s precisely the richness of his sonship the Tempter tried to wrest from Jesus and scatter to the winds: “If you are the Son of God…” He wanted him to take his sonship, disconnect it from the Father and misuse it for his own ego. He wanted him to give humanity something other than his Father’s word, to seek fame through the spectacular, to seize power at the price of a lie; the three temptations. And Jesus would not play. In every biblical text with which he counters Satan, there is mention of God, of the Lord; that is, of his Father. In the garden, Eden, the Evil One tempted Eve and Adam, and they ate and they fell. In the wilderness, fasting, Jesus, the new Adam, was tempted and stood firm. He kept the riches Adam had lost. He remained the Son, beloved of the Father. He remained connected to the Source and Origin of his whole being, human and divine. He lived the Psalm: “he who dwells in the shelter of the Most High / and abides in the shade of the Almighty / says to the Lord: ‘My refuge, / my stronghold in whom I trust’” (Ps 90:1-2) – the bond unbroken. “He suffered the temptation for [us]”, says St Augustine, “and he won from himself the victory for [us].” In his Easter Passover, his riches pass over to us. In the mystery of baptismal grace, the Father says to us: “This is my beloved Son.” Our deepest identity is restored and in the Holy Spirit we respond: “You are my Father; I am your child.”
So our life now has a foundation. We can stand. We don’t have to shore ourselves up on the secondary things. We needn’t waste mental and emotional energy, trying to be someone when we already are. “You are my Father; I am your child.” That’ll do. No-one can take it away and our whole life, in time and eternity, can grow from it. “Be off, Satan!” “Who is it that overcomes the world but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” (1 Jn 5:5). In him, “I am a child of God.” His “hidden riches” are hidden in us. This Lent, this springtime of the soul, may we indeed “grow in understanding” and feel the prayers of the Saints around us.
(St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, 1 March 2020)