Saturday, February 24, 2007

In the Desert

And so we’ve arrived at another Lent, these forty days that the constant tradition of the Church gives us to prepare our hearts to celebrate the Passion and Resurrection of the Lord. It’s a time to quiet down, forget about trifles and distractions, and to re-dedicate ourselves to following the Lord.

And the Lord we are given to follow on this first Sunday of Lent is Jesus contending with the devil in the desert. In St. Luke’s version, which we proclaim today, Jesus’ forty days of temptation in the desert comes right after his baptism in the Jordan. Recall the scene of the Baptism: when Jesus had been baptized a voice spoke from heaven, saying, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”

Now the devil is an envious one. It bothers him that God is pleased with Jesus Christ his Son. So when Jesus is in the desert the devil tempts him to abuse his power as Son of God: to command the stone to become bread, to appropriate to himself the worldly power of an earthly king, to test God his Father by throwing himself from the height of the Jerusalem Temple.

For us, we don’t have the divine power of the Son of God, so we can’t be tempted to command a stone to become bread or to be king of the world. So we might not be able to relate to the Lord’s temptation, but we can certainly relate to being in the desert, because we all have deserts in our lives.

The desert is a place of discomfort. It’s too hot during the day and too cold at night, and there’s no shelter from either. The necessities of life just can’t be had. In the desert we’re vulnerable and in danger. It’s a place of anxiety, of feeling unsupported and uncared for.

And we all have these deserts in our lives. Maybe it’s a difficult relationship with someone close. We’re anxious with him or her, and the love we need, like water in the desert, is hard to come by. Maybe it’s a job in which we feel little support and are always anxious about how we are doing or whether we’ll be able to keep the job. Perhaps it’s a whole period of our lives in which we felt alone and uncared for. These are all deserts, the dry places of danger that we can find ourselves in. Sometimes they get so bad that we feel like not even God is there to guide us and support us.

And just like it was for the Lord Jesus himself, the desert is always a place of temptation! Because it’s when we feel alone, anxious, vulnerable, and unsupported that we are tempted to sin. For each kind of personality, the temptations will be different. Some of us will try to comfort ourselves in the desert with sensual pleasures, with the empty delights of gluttony or unchastity. Others will lash out at the universe for the injustice of their vulnerability, indulging themselves in the useless anger and nastiness that hurts them and everyone around them too. Still others will try to pretend like the desert doesn’t exist at all, acting like they aren’t anxious or lonely or vulnerable by indulging themselves in the lies of vanity and pride.

Yes, we’re all sinners, and because it can be hard to see God when we’re in the dryness and danger of the desert, we get tempted and sometimes fall into sin. The hardest thing about our difficult relationships and situations, the desert experiences of our lives, is just this, that it’s hard to see God. God is much easier to see in hindsight. We look back at a trying spell or a hard situation from the past and we see what we couldn’t see at the time, that God was with us all the while, leading, guiding, helping us to avoid the worst in ourselves and the world.

This kind of hindsight is a great gift! It can give us a very useful faith. Noticing how God has been with us in the past can help us believe that God is with us now. It enables us to pray: “Lord, I can see now that you were with me in what I went through back then, so even if I’m not sure what you are doing right now, I believe that you are with me.”

And this is what the author of the book of Deuteronomy recommends to the Israelites in the first reading. When he brings his gift to the altar, the Israelite is supposed to recall and recite the whole story of salvation that God has wrought in the history of his chosen people. Thus part of the sacrifice is a re-membering, a calling back to mind of how God has been with his people all the while.

And it is even more so for us! We bring our whole lives to this altar. Our proclamation of Jesus’ temptations in the desert shows how, in the humanity he took on for our sake, God has united himself to the dark places and troubled relationships in our lives. And the humanity of Christ connects all our happiness and joy to God’s life too. All of this is the sacrifice we offer to God in this Eucharist.

And giving thanks for the indestructible presence of God in our lives, established forever in the humanity of Christ, is what the Eucharist means literally, the Great Thanksgiving. And it’s Holy Communion with God that we receive back from this altar, re-membering and re-establishing our adoption into the divine life in Christ.

So as we start this Lent, let’s turn back to Christ, who is with us always. He is with us in our joy, making our happiness into the very delight of God. He is with us in our temptation, in the deserts in our lives, resisting the devil on our behalf. He is even with us in our sins, suffering with us in the pain and trouble we bring about through them. So let’s begin again to do good, turning away from sin and believing this good news. Amen.

(1st Sunday of Lent, C)

No comments: