Lent – these 40 days –
Lent, Holy Week and Easter –
Lent and the liturgical readings of Lent –
Lent and the practices of Lent (prayer, fasting and almsgiving) –
the Paschal Mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection, which is what Lent and Easter are about –
this whole thing in which we are engaged –
all of this –
is big, is serious. It has an unparalleled power to throw light on our lives, on what’s in our hearts, and on what’s going on in the world. It has a power not just to throw light, but to change these things, transform them, make a difference.
So, it is worth our while to engage.
Since time immemorial the 1st Sunday of Lent has focussed on the temptations of Jesus. Hence the Gospel, and the Preface of today’s Mass.
If we then add the first reading from Genesis on the Creation and Fall of man – if we add the second reading, St Paul on the two Adams, on the drama of sin and grace in human history – if we add the Responsorial Psalm, which presupposes the spectacular sin of David – then here too we meet serious stuff.
Indeed it’s almost a summary of basic Christian doctrine.
Let’s just focus, though, on the theme of temptation.
In the 1st Reading we hear of the fashioning of man / Adam. Adam is man in general, he’s humanity collectively, he’s an individual man. And he is given himself by God: in-breathed dust, Pascal’s ‘thinking reed’. He is given his humanity. He is given the woman, equal and complementary. He is given a garden and its trees. He is given authority to name the animals. He is given the closeness of God. Thomist theology will say he’s endowed with natural, preternatural and supernatural gifts.
And immediately the snake of temptation appears. Adam is gifted, privileged, empowered. And immediately he is tempted. And he sins. There has been much analysis of that temptation and sin, of what it means to ‘be like gods, knowing good and evil.’ Put simply, the sin was this: they took what they were given (their humanity) and took it away from the Giver. They disconnected it from the Source, took it to themselves and saw it as their own. One word used in this context is autonomy – being a law unto oneself.
It was the setting of a pattern.
Take the Psalm (50 / 51). It presupposes David, chosen by God, a man after God’s own heart, anointed by the prophet Samuel, king over all Israel. He sees a beautiful woman washing and he’s tempted to take her as his own. He has the power to have her. He’s a man. He’s the king. Inconveniently, she has a husband. But David has the power to eliminate him. And he does. He gets her.
Here is the pattern again. And here is each of us with our humanity, our sexuality, our knowledge, relationships, position, power. Here is each of us at each new stage of our life, when a new potential is unfurled or a new identity taken on and new responsibilities assumed. Here is each period in history even, with its own gift and power. Here is our age with its technological prowess. And immediately it is followed – we are shadowed – by temptation, by the lure of abusing the gift. Taking it away from the Giver and taking it to ourselves.
So we come to the gospel. Just before the story of Jesus’ temptation comes that of his baptism by John in the River Jordan. A voice from heaven has just declared him the Father’s beloved Son. The Holy Spirit has just been seen resting on him. He has been invested with the mission of the Messiah. And immediately he’s tempted. Immediately the Tempter says to him, ‘If you are the Son of God…’ Once again, there has been much fascinating analysis of the burden of each of the three temptations. Putting it simply though, Jesus the Messiah is being solicited to write his own script. He overcomes that temptation by referring to his Father’s script found in Scripture. He does not separate the gift of his mission from the Giver. Instead he makes it the ground of the gift of himself, the gift completed on the Cross and accepted in the Resurrection, the gift of himself to the Father for us, the gift before us in the Eucharist.
A wise monk once said that for a temptation to be really such, it must have a 65% chance of success. Otherwise, it’s not really a temptation at all.
But here’s one last thought about temptation. Why are we tempt-able? Because we are not self-sufficient, because we are a work in progress, incomplete. We talk of ‘giving in’ to temptation, of ‘yielding’ to it. And we also talk, as I just have, of ‘giving ourselves.’ But to give ourselves means consenting to be taken. Everything around us and in us is, in a sense, asking for us, wanting to take us, stretching out its arms to us, begging us to yield. The question is to what, to whom, and how we yield. Yield, though, we must. We are made to be taken. Jesus did not yield an inch to Satan. Nor must we. ‘Be off, Satan!’ Let it be ‘no’ to our passions, ‘no’ to evil influences from outside, ‘no’ to fads and fashions. But Jesus did freely yield his whole self to his mission, to the will of God revealed in Scripture and the inner influence of the Holy Spirit. He let himself be taken – all the way to the Cross.
The answer to temptation, therefore, is prayer. The prayer of self-surrender. It’s a prayer such as the famous Ignatian Suscipe, which begins: ‘Receive [or take], O Lord, all my liberty. Take my memory, my understanding, and my entire will…’ Or the Psalm verse the Benedictine monk or nun sings at Profession, Suscipe me Domine: ‘Receive [or take] me Lord, according to your word and I shall live, and you will not disappoint me of my hope.’
This is the path of Lent.
King’s College chapel, University of Aberdeen, 9 March 2014