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Sunday, 13 March 2011

First Sunday of Lent (A)

(Genesis 2:7-9; 3:1-7; Romans 5:12, 17-19; Matthew 4:1-11)

In our first reading, the Serpent, speaking to the woman in the Garden of Eden, directly contradicted God’s warning against eating fruit from the forbidden tree:
You will not die.  For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.
However, when speaking with Jesus in our Gospel passage, Satan considered it wiser not to openly contradict the words spoken by the Father at Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan (Matthew 3:17ss.):
 This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.
Was He indeed God’s Son?   Satan was hesitant, certainly not out of respect for this possible Son of God, but out of a desire to proceed correctly and prove successful.  Therefore, instead, of directly contradicting what the Father had said, as he had done when speaking with that foolish woman Eve in the beginning, he tried subterfuge and cunning; he endeavoured to communicate something of his own doubt, to insinuate some little seed of distrust, into the mind of this quite ordinary-looking man:
            If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.
Jesus’ period of testing in the desert had gone on for a full forty days and nights, and the devil apparently thought that a few carefully chosen words of his at the end of it, when Jesus was human-enough to be showing exhaustion, might cause Him to wonder whether His visionary experience at His baptism by John in the Jordan had been as real as He had first thought.  Satan hoped that Jesus -- having been very much alone for forty days and nights and now feeling very weak from starvation -- might be unable, at this moment, to deal with a nagging suspicion at the back of His mind   It would have, let us say, amused, pleased, Satan hugely if Jesus were to try to secretly satisfy His own slight doubt – a fatal fruit of Satan’s sowing – while at the same time proclaiming Satan to be totally wrong in having himself imagined and expressed such doubt! 
            If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.
However, Jesus had no gnawing suspicion of His Father to assuage, nothing to prove to Himself, and He – most certainly -- had no intention whatsoever of giving Satan the satisfaction of receiving an answer to his question: throughout His ministry He would refuse to allow evil spirits to testify concerning Him, and He had no inclination to prove His personal identity to their master now.  And if Satan thought that an opportunity to secretly satisfy His natural hunger might influence Him, Jesus made it supremely clear where He found His true nourishment:
He answered and said, "It is written, 'Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.' "
Jesus, the Son of God, sent, as Messiah, to save God's People from their servitude to sin, was being tempted as the early Israelites had been when they were crossing the desert towards the Promised Land under the guidance of Yahweh their God and the leadership of Moses their prophet.   On that journey, Israel of old -- sinful children of their sinful mother Eve -- had behaved as she did: feeling the pangs of hunger, they would not trust God and complained bitterly to Moses  that God was planning to kill them in the desert, openly expressing a longing to return to the slavery of Egypt for the food that was plentiful there.  Later on Moses reminded them of their behaviour saying:
Remember that the LORD your God led you all the way these forty years in the wilderness, to humble you and test you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not.  So He humbled you, allowed you to hunger.   (Deuteronomy 8:2-3)
Remember! Do not forget how you provoked the LORD your God to wrath in the wilderness. (Deuteronomy 9:7)
Jesus had shown Himself to be in no way subject to that over-riding solicitude for self which is characteristic of fallen humanity: suffering and trial could not induce Him either to suspect His Father or abuse His gifts.
Therefore, Satan turned his attention from Jesus’ human make-up to His supposedly divine mission, homing in, so speak, on Jesus’ desire to be recognized and accepted as Israel’s Redeemer and Saviour.
Satan had noted Jesus’ reference to the Scriptures and so, continuing his attempt to find out just Who Jesus might be, he took Him to the Holy City, Jerusalem, set Him on a pinnacle of the Temple, and said: ‘Here, on this pinnacle of the world-famous Jewish temple is just the spot to prove yourself and win your people.   Here, you can do something that would resound throughout Israel and be fully in accordance with the Scriptures you quote so lovingly; it would be something whereby the whole Jewish nation could easily recognize that the Lord has chosen and appointed you, therefore:
If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down. For it is written: 'He shall give His angels charge over you,' and, 'In their hands they shall bear you up, Lest you dash your foot against a stone.'
Jesus, again unmoved, replied:
            It is written again, 'You shall not tempt the LORD your God.'
Thwarted for a second time, Satan showed persistence for he was beginning not only to despise, but also to fear and, indeed, to truly hate this Jesus of Nazareth.  Who was He?  What the hell (a suitable word for Satan!) was He up to?
Today, we, who have as St. Paul says ‘the mind of Christ’, know that Jesus had not come for His own human aggrandisement or satisfaction, nor had He entered upon His divine mission for the well-being of Israel alone: He had been sent by His Father, to save the whole of mankind.  Although Satan knew neither Jesus nor His mission fully, nevertheless, his temptations were diabolically cunning shots in the dark: he seems to have disdainfully thought that any human-being could be tempted successfully, provided that the stakes were high enough.  Therefore he made one further and final attempt to derail Jesus’ mission:
Again, the devil took Him up on an exceedingly high mountain, and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory.  And he said to Him, "All these things I will give You if You will fall down and worship me.
At that moment Satan -- in the fullness of his maniacal pride and ambition --overreached himself, and Jesus, no longer tolerating his presence, responded by a manifestation of His own authority:
Away with you, Satan!
before adding the words of Scripture:
For it is written, 'You shall worship the LORD your God, and Him only you shall serve.'
‘Away with you, Satan!’   Words cannot express the loathing, revulsion, and holy anger of Jesus’ reply … but we can recall that years later, at the very end of His mission (Matt 16:23), He relived once again, and once again rejected with startling vehemence, this desert experience, on the occasion when Peter tried to persuade Him to follow an easier path than that of the Cross:
He turned and said to Peter, "Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offence to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men."            
In these temptations of Jesus in the desert we recall, as I have mentioned, Israel’s trials in the desert of Sinai on the way to the Promised Land, in particular the occasion when Moses told the Israelites:
When the LORD your God brings you into the land of which He swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, then beware, lest you forget the LORD who brought you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage.  You shall fear the LORD your God and serve Him. (Deut. 6:10-14)
Now Jesus sums up, and fulfils, in Himself the history and calling of Israel, the Chosen People; but He also prepares for the future world-wide People of God, the Church that would be His Body and Bride, the Church whose Head and Saviour He would be, and therefore these temptations of Jesus in the desert are for both our instruction and our confirmation as His disciples.
In the first two of these temptations of Jesus Satan starts off with the words, ‘I you are the Son of God’ endeavouring to stir up suspicion of God’s love and providence.  How many Christians, today, succumb to this temptation!  They fall away from God because they begin to doubt that He is with them, they are not sure He is hearing them, they are unaware of His helping, guiding, hand in their lives.  “I don’t feel anything; He makes no sign.  If only I could be conscious of His presence, if He would only answer I would be satisfied.”  In some such way they begin to demand a sign from God to convince themselves of His Providence over them: some turn away from the true Faith and seek refuge in religious sects which provide them with all sorts of pseudo-divine signs; others try to stir up signs for themselves by rashly setting aside faith and reasonable behaviour and pushing themselves to become neurotically excited and disturbed.  You will see some of these in popular churches doing all sorts of strange antics or excessive practices.  Many more, however, complaining that God is silent in their lives, fall away from the Faith, and, as it were returning to Egypt’s slavery, turn aside to enjoy the pagan life-style of the surrounding peoples, trying to forget their worries and cares, and even their conscience, in a maelstrom of worldly endeavours, comforts, and distractions.  Let us learn from Jesus, People of God, starving after 40 days and nights in the desert: He would in no way make demands of God, nor would He divert His divine calling or abuse His divine gifts in order to get earthly satisfactions for Himself; above all He would never love Himself so much as to entertain suspicion of His Father:
The Father has not left Me alone, for I always do those things that please Him.  (John 8:29)
Finally, in the third temptation, notice that Satan does not begin with the words, ‘If you are the Son of God’ because this time at issue is the supreme sin of human, devilish, pride.  Here we have the situation of those who do indeed set out to do the work of God but allow themselves to be tempted to accept just a little help (that is, initially, just a little help) from the devil: they carry on, apparently seeking to do God's purposes indeed, but for reasons other than God alone.  Often enough they allow themselves to become discouraged under difficulties or fearful in the face of opposition; then they resort to making just a few slight compromises and  some minimal accommodations acceptable to popular tastes, all done with the aim of recording success where previously there had only been apparent failure.  Thenceforth, all the high aims and loving purposes avowedly pursued are increasingly subject to their desire for results, good results, successful results, above all, acceptable results.  The ultimate end for such victims of the devil's deceits is that, far from serving God’s plans and the true good of their fellows they serve, they end up promoting, first and foremost, their own hypocrisy; and, far from worshipping God as they started out, they end up worshipping the devil in his very best clothes!  They worship him who will give them humanly appreciable and acceptable success in the work they do apparently for God; they worship him who will enable them to taste the general approval and personal self-satisfaction that comes from wearing easily recognizable tokens of pseudo-holiness!   They both despise and fear the humility, the waiting, the trusting, the hoping, the praying, involved in worshipping God alone. 
The variety of humanity’s life experience and the vagaries of its response to such experience are multiform; and though sometimes, and indeed far too often, they show all too clearly its fallen condition, nevertheless our evangelist would have us never forget that the basic, God-given and God-orientated, aspirations and  possibilities of our human nature are sublime, for when Jesus had successfully overcome His trial on our behalf:
            The devil left Him, and behold, angels came and ministered to Him.


Sunday, 6 March 2011

9th Sunday, year (A)
(Deuteronomy 11:18, 26-28, 32; Romans 3:21-25, 28; Matthew 7:21-27)

What is involved in being a disciple of Jesus?  What rules govern a disciple’s behaviour?  Are there certain actions, certain conventions which, belonging to such discipleship, are characteristic of Christians?
In our society today there are not only many politicians but also many ordinary people who feel themselves obliged to use language that is politically correct – as distinct from what is sincere and true – and to show forth convictions that are publicly acceptable – whatever their moral integrity -- and who, in such ways, find themselves regularly performing before other people rather than living before God.  Such persons, if they like to call themselves Catholics and Christians, seek to do both what is acceptable to people in the surrounding society and what is good before God; and consequently, they find themselves torn between the demands of modern society and the requirements of Jesus’ teaching.  Ideally in fact, they would like to have a written law somewhat similar to the Jewish Law of old: a code which -- though remaining literally prescriptive -- could always be authoritatively interpreted and adapted in ways that would claim to keep it relevant in, applicable to, and sufficient for, succeeding ages.  There can be no denying that it must have been very comforting for the Pharisees to obey their own interpretation of ancient, lapidary, commands, such as we heard Moses give in the first reading:
You shall therefore impress these words of mine on your heart and on your soul;   and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontals on your forehead.
However, the great danger with such religious observances is that the prescribed commandments and practices, being written down in black and white, so to speak, and handed down from generation to generation, instead of being recognized as ways to express love of God, as Moses expressly wanted, can become themselves the aim of one's life, displacing God Himself so naturally that His absence is hardly noticed:
If you are careful to keep all this commandment which I am commanding you to do then the LORD will drive out all these nations from before you, and you will dispossess nations greater and mightier than you. (Deuteronomy 11:22-23)
Now Jesus did, indeed, give us commands because He approved the Ten Commandments of the Old Law, but He summed them up in the one great command:
You might say, ‘but that commandment is found in the Old Testament, the Jews knew all about that’, and you would be correct.  However, Jesus took up that commandment of personal love and gave it immeasurably greater prominence, not only in His teaching but even more so in His own Personal attitude and prayer, where communion with, love for, and trust in, His Father transcended all else.
Nor was that all.   For the Jews, the Law was a treasured, concrete, reality, originally given by God to Moses written on tablets of stone, then subsequently protected, preserved, and transmitted as the Torah, written down with loving precision on their Sacred Scrolls, where it was studied ever more diligently and observed ever more minutely … it was before their eyes, in their hands, subject to their appreciation and application.  In fact, the Torah was THEIRS.
God Himself, however, was always of another world: His written-down will was well known, but not His Person, nor His presence.  In such circumstances, Jesus could easily have been regarded as nothing more than a truly remarkable man for Whom God was somewhat more real than He was to other men of His time, and as such He might well have been acceptable to, and even welcomed by, the majority of practicing Jews.   Jesus however destroyed that possibility by destroying the ‘abstractness’ of God, for He not only called Him His ‘dear Father’ so insistently and openly, but above all He taught His disciples that:
            The Father and I are One. (John 10:30)
Philip? He who has seen Me has seen the Father; so how can you say, 'Show us the Father'?  Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father in Me? The words that I speak to you I do not speak on My own authority; but the Father who dwells in Me does the works.  Believe Me that I am in the Father and the Father in Me. (John 14:9-11)
In this Good News of the New Testament, there is the commandment of love as found in the Old dispensation, but it is no longer directed via a written Law to a distant God – unseen, and indeed unseeable, even for Moses -- but rather to One made totally Personal and present; a love offered to the heavenly Father through the human figure of Jesus in Whom the very Person of the Father manifests Himself and makes Himself present to us.  The Jewish way to God was, and is, through observance of the Law’s prescriptions; for the Christian -- Jesus, Son of man and one of us, Son of God, beloved and only-begotten -- is personally, the Way, the Truth and the Life for all who believe in Him and through Him.   Thus love for God can never be supplanted by or transmuted into a fixation on legal observances; the observance of a  written law cannot be the supreme way for, can never bring about, the ultimate fulfilment of our Christian experience of life.  For the Christian life is, from the first instant of our rebirth through faith, a personal response to the Father’s individual call; a personal love for Jesus the only-begotten Son of the Father and Saviour of all mankind; an expectant awareness of and obedience to the Spirit of Jesus, Who -- as the Father’s Promise and Jesus’ Gift -- is leading us to our fulfilment as disciples of Jesus sharing in His glory with all the saints in the eternal kingdom of the Father.
Communion in and with Jesus, by the Spirit, for the Father is the originating purpose and desired fulfilment of all the hopes, prayers, and endeavours, of the true disciple of Jesus and adopted child of the Father.
Of old, the righteousness of God was manifested in the Law He gave to Israel:
What great nation is there that has statutes and judgments as righteous as this whole law which I am setting before you today? (Deut. 4:8)
In the fullness of time, however, that same righteousness of God came to be fully and finally manifested in all its amplitude and majesty by the Son of God Himself taking human flesh of the Virgin Mary by the power of the Spirit of God; as St. Paul told us in the second reading:
Now, the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the Law, … the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe.
And we Christians, being made righteous by receiving -- through faith and baptism -- a share in the fullness of God's righteousness manifested in Christ Jesus, are called to fulfil only one commandment, that of love, for, as St. Paul writes in his letter to the Romans:
            Love is the fulfilment of the Law.
And this commandment concerns not something to be done, so much as Someone to be sought, the Father; Someone to be lovingly obeyed, Jesus our Saviour; Someone to be joyfully heard and followed, the Holy Spirit.  We should always personally seek the Person, the Face, of the Father, for it is the Father Who originally calls each and every one of us and awaits our response: He calls us to recognise and embrace Jesus His Son, our Saviour and our Brother, so that Jesus Himself might be our constant companion along the way; to trust and obey His promised Gift of the Spirit -- the bond of eternal love uniting the Father and the Son – Who will lead us to where Jesus has taken our human flesh into the very presence of the Father.  For those thus called by the Father and guided by the Spirit to share in the glory of their Lord and Saviour St. Paul says:
Against such there is no law.  If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit.  (Galatians 5:23-25)
In Jesus, by the Spirit, therefore, we are always seeking the Father, to know His will, to give Him thanks and praise, as Jesus said in our Gospel reading:
Not everyone who says to Me, "Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter.
On earth we are always pilgrims: always loving yet always longing; always looking upward and pressing forward, yet never having arrived, though knowing the time will surely come.
On the other hand, those who rely on their own performance of a law with specific commands and duties to be fulfilled, look back ever more and more as they grow older, wanting to justify their inevitably increasing weakness by relying upon what they proudly imagine themselves to have already done.  Our Lord gave us an example of such self-deception:
Many will say to Me on that day, "Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?' "And then I will declare to them, "I never knew you; DEPART FROM ME, YOU WHO PRACTICE LAWLESSNESS.'
People of God, perseverance in searching to know and love not only the will but the very Person of the Father, trusting hopefully in Jesus as we confidently watch and listen for His guiding Spirit,  that is the true hallmark of God's people, as St. Paul himself confessed:
Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me.  Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.  Therefore let us, as many as are mature, have this mind; and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal even this to you (Philippians 3:12-15).