Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Christian Trials

(1st Sunday of Lent, C)

Each year on this first Sunday of Lent, we hear one of the accounts of Jesus’ fast and temptation in the desert. Today we take courage from Jesus’ defeat of the devil; in our own journey through Lent we imitate his retreat and meditate on the meaning of the trials for us.

The temptations of Jesus in the desert are an argument over what it means to be the Son of God. In the first temptation the devil says, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” We know that Jesus is hungry, because he is fasting. We also know that Jesus is quite willing and able to care for the hungry by bringing forth bread in a miraculous way; think of the very familiar scene of Jesus multiplying the loaves to feed the multitude. He won’t, however, do something similar here. He uses his divine power to take care of the hunger of others, but not his own. “One does not live on bread alone,” Jesus says. His obedience to God is more important than his bodily needs, and he will not sacrifice his trust in his Father in order to satisfy them. This is a strong word for us who desire to become better Christians over the course of this Lent; how can we better put the needs of others before our own? How about the needs of the hungry of this world? If we’re not thinking about their needs, we’re not the Body of Christ we hope to become in Holy Communion.

In the second temptation, the devil offers Jesus all the “power and glory” of the “kingdoms of the world.” All Jesus has to do is worship the devil, to trade his heavenly Father for the ‘prince of this world.’ For Jesus to have power and authority the way this world imagines it, he would have to reject his Father. For the glory and power of the Son of God do not conform to the way this world imagines these things. Think of Jesus on the Cross with the capital charge hanging above him: ‘The King of the Jews.’ He’s not much of a king the way royal power is usually defined; he can’t even move his hands and feet, much less command or control anything. No; the power of the Son of God lies not in his lording it over, controlling, or pushing anybody around, but in the almighty humility by which he places himself below us as our Suffering Servant. So it must be with us, brothers and sisters, if we are to be Christians. From the larger systems of political oppression to the little tyrannies and coercions of ‘control freaks’ in our relationships, workplaces, and churches, the Christian rejects it all. True power lies instead in the courage to place ourselves below others, to become their servant and so make them free.

In the third temptation, the devil invites Jesus to put the Father’s faithfulness to him to the test. “Throw yourself down,” he says, for doesn’t the Bible say that God will protect you? Trust doesn’t work like that, and we all know it from our human relationships. If someone tests our trust or our faithfulness, we’re hurt, because we know that this means we were not really trusted in the first place. So it is with God, brothers and sisters. If we really trust in God’s presence to us, in his desire for our peace and happiness, we should never have to put Him to the test. We should never have to say in our hearts, ‘just do this for me’ or ‘just give me this sign and then I will really believe in You.’ To trust God is to abandon ourselves into his Care. If we can do this, we will also fulfill the calls that come to us in the first two temptations: to look to the needs of others before our own, and to let go of control. During this Lent, may we be about this work of becoming more Christ-like.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

In the Kingdom of God, the Poor Help YOU

(6th Sunday, C)

For the past few Sundays we have been hearing about the beginnings of Jesus’ ministry according to St. Luke. First we had two weeks of his inaugural sermon in the synagogue at Nazareth, Last Sunday was the calling of the first apostles. Today we begin to hear the preaching of Jesus in earnest with the beginning of his “Sermon on the Plain.” Jesus begins this great sermon with a set of four beatitudes—‘blessed are you’—matched with four corresponding woes—‘woe to you.’

These are good for us to hear because we are much more accustomed to St. Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes, which we hear every year on All Saints Day and is among the most popular choices for the gospel of funeral and wedding Masses. St. Luke’s version, however, is starker. There is no “Blessed are the poor in spirit” here, no chance to hedge or mystify the teaching. “Blessed are you who are poor…who are hungry…who are weeping,” proclaims St. Luke’s Jesus, and “Woe to you are rich…who are filled…who laugh now, for you will weep.” Worldly fortune has been reversed.

This is hard stuff, but we have to try to take it seriously. For God, in the birth of Jesus Christ, has accomplished this great reversal. At the beginning of Luke’s gospel, Elizabeth, our Blessed Mother’s cousin, becomes the first person to proclaim the prayer that will become for us the Hail Mary: “Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” Mary responds with her great Magnificat, which the Church sings as the gospel for Evening Prayer each day: God has “cast down the mighty from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly/the hungry he has filled with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.”

The very birth of Jesus Christ is itself this great reversal. In Jesus, God has given everything and even Himself away and become poor. We saw this all through the Christmas season when the Almighty God was revealed in poor and vulnerable child. As we go forward into Lent later this week, we will begin to contemplate the poverty and humility of God from the aspect of the Cross, wherein God is revealed as a condemned and tortured criminal. Both of these mysteries of the sublime humility of God are recapitulated and made present for us here at the Eucharist, as Jesus makes himself present to us, as St. Francis says, “under the little form of bread.”

What this means is that God, by revealing himself as a self-abandoning poverty and vulnerability, has identified himself with the poor and vulnerable of this world. So we have to ask ourselves what this might mean for us, especially any of us, who, like me, worry that they might be among the recipients of Jesus’ curse, being well provided for in this world, being “filled now.”

It seems to me that we can challenge ourselves in at least a couple of ways. First, we must adopt an attitude and spirituality that find their hope in God rather than in the things of this world. This is what we hear from Jeremiah the prophet in the first reading: “Cursed is the one who trusts in human beings,” but “Blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord.” As many of us have learned the hard way in these times, the securities of this world are not reliable. Only in God do we have a true and lasting security. One of the documents of the Second Vatican Council that you never hear about, the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, describes the attitude of God’s people: “Following Jesus in His poverty, they are neither depressed by the lack of temporal goods nor inflated by their abundance; imitating Christ in His humility, they have no obsession for empty honors.” (§4)

Second, because God, in Jesus Christ, has identified himself with the poor and the vulnerable, we too should put ourselves on the side of the poor. Those who are poor, hungry, and weeping right now in this world should be at the heart of our prayer, at the front of our concern, and at the center of our debates on public policy. When we can do this, we have truly become the Body of Christ we proclaim ourselves to be here at Mass.