Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent
by Fr. Richard G. Cipolla
"Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil."(Mt. 4:1)
It is always the gospel of the temptation of Christ. No missal is needed, just attention and openness. The temptations are basic and deep: the temptation to fulfill personal desires, especially bodily desires: the temptation to power; the temptation to tempt God, to play chicken with God, so to speak. We all know these temptations. To fulfill human desire, be it hunger or sexual fulfillment; to want to be important in the eyes of the world and to be a player wherever we are that will determine the outcome; and to challenge God to show that he is God. The basics.The basic temptations we all know.
And so the Church insists that this is what we must hear on the first Sunday of Lent, Lent, that preparation for Easter and more deeply the wake up call to deepen our spiritual life. This reading, this gospel, is not didactic. It is not meant to inform us of something we did not already know. We are not children sitting here listening to the teacher’s lesson. The readings at Mass are not primarily teaching instruments. We have heard this same gospel so many times. The gospel is sung in a rigid tone, without emotion, without personality, because these words transcend immediate comprehension. They presume not intellectual judgment but rather the openness of the heart and mind to what is being heard. In this way the gospel of the temptations of Christ, in the words of all of the evangelists, is iconic. It is not like a speech or a lesson. It is more like a painting, but a sacred painting like an icon that points to the truth of what is painted on the icon. It is painted in a traditional way because this in the only way to convey the meaning of the words. That is why the readings are sung in fixed tones that allow no interpretation by those who sing the readings. This is not mere objectivity. This is the subject taking on the radical objectivity that is the Word of God who is the subject of the readings.
Jesus goes out into the desert, the place of danger and silence, to confront Satan, the personification of evil, of rebellion against God. And today’s gospel is the icon of that confrontation, an icon that is unemotional, is clean, is to the point. The temptations are iconic, are radically human after- the- fall, and we know this is true because we are human, we are men and women who live in this world after the fall, the world of temptation and sin. But there are dangers in contemplating this icon of the temptation of Christ. The first danger is that we can put this icon and this reading on a beautiful religious shelf and make it part of a religious world that has nothing to do with the real world in which we live. Then our religion is reduced to a sentimental longing for what we think is real, for what will satisfy us, for what will satisfy our particular longings.
But the second danger, and the one that I would suggest is the more deeply dangerous, is to annul that bond of humanity that binds us to the person of Jesus Christ. It is here that the image of the icon breaks down, or at least is shown to be less than complete. Because the temptations of Christ have ultimate meaning only if they are real temptations that have something basic and real with respect to our own temptations. In other words, the temptations of Christ in today’s gospel are real and not a mere acting out of something that transcends our reality. What Christ confronted in that desert was not a mere acting out of something humanly inevitable. It was a real human temptation to refuse to do the will of God. If this is not true, then we are not saved, for if Christ is not man as we are men, save for sin, then we hope in vain, our faith is in vain, for if his temptations are not real, if he did not have the freedom to say no to the demands of his body, to power and to making himself a god, then the icon is just a painting that should be hung in a gallery of religious history. What is at stake here is Christ’s real humanity, the humanity that he shares with us. For if he is not fully human then he could not save us . If he is not truly God he cannot save us.
Our emphasis is always on the latter. Christ’s sinlessness is not a denial of being human. It is the reality of being a man or woman. But the reality of his temptations, which reality is a mark of being human after the fall and which affirms his divinity, is crucial to our salvation. Christ’s temptation was to not do the will of God, was to not be the Savior, was to not die on the Cross for the likes of you and me, a temptation that is understandable for us all who know ourselves, who in the estimation of the world or the world of common sense are not worth dying for. For Christianity is not a religion that is based on a myth about a dying and rising god. The dagger of our faith into mere reality is the Incarnation, that God became man, and that the understanding of that assertion, that creed, that belief, that faith, is radically different from any religion, infinite into the finite, and the purpose of that irruption is not platonic perfection nor Aristotelian or modern perfection, but rather, and rather in an absolute way, salvation.
Just the other day there was the announcement of the detection of gravity waves that were predicted by Einstein and that are the blips of evidence of the colliding of black holes. This is awesome, for it deepens the wonderful mystery that is our universe. But it is nothing compared to the God who created the universe and all that is therein to die on a cross to save mankind from sin and eternal death. This is no blip on a screen from billions of years ago. This is an event in human history that is measured not in light years. This is an event in human history that is measured not in light years nor detected by ultra sensitive instruments buried under the earth. What we do here at the Mass transcends and yet is deeply involved with black holes and with you and me and everything that exists. Lent is that season of struggle, of our struggle with our fallen humanity and our God-given grace to transcend our fallen-ness by faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. Lent is that time, that God given time, to do, to really do what we have to do to return to the Lord and to shed ourselves of the illusion that the Catholic faith is a choo choo train to eternal bliss in a heaven made by own longings and desires.
Lent is an opportunity to use the grace of God to convert our stony hearts into hearts on fire with the love of God and therefore love of neighbor. Reminding ourselves that grace is a gift to be used and not magic, let us pray that each of us may keep a truly holy Lent and that we may grown in faith, hope—and above all, love.