Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Temptation in the Desert, Part 1

Author's Note: This was originally given as a homily for my classmates, the main points at least. It was meant to be for last Sunday's readings (first Sunday of Lent). I was surprised by the positive feedback despite my own self-criticism. I decided to formalize this a little and organize it as I had originally intended. 

I also decided to split this up into two parts. First, because if I didn't it would be somewhat long, and secondly, because I felt that there might be too much information given out at once. Enjoy, and please leave comments and feedback if possible! ~Matt

Christ conquering the devil, putting Satan to shame, and his strength to resist temptation. We often associate the Gospel passage of Jesus in the desert with such notions and not incorrectly. What I propose, however, is to look at this passage in a different way. I will not take this passage as simply a display of Christ's power but rather show how this story in Scripture is a warning and a model for each and every one of us. The season of Lent is a time where we are led into the desert by the Spirit, if we choose to follow Him.

In order to understand Jesus' temptation we must better understand ourselves. In order to understand ourselves we must look at ourselves, not with eyes alone but with our hearts. I hope to facilitate this 'turning toward ourselves' with the following reflection.

The Desert

Some of us are often accustomed to believe that when Scripture or an early text mentions a desert that it's an uninhabitable wasteland. If a hermit were to go to an uninhabitable place, or Christ for that matter, he would surely die. A desert is, as part of the name implies, deserted. Another apt name that describes the desert is desolate, that is devoid of people. A desert was often considered a place apart from society, from community, and from people. It was here that Jesus went. He went in order to be alone.

The desert is a place of silence. When man enters the desert he has no one left to confront but himself. In silence, fasting, and prayer man removes everything that stands before him. The same is true with ourselves. We obstruct our vision of ourselves with noise, with indulgence, and with idle amusements. But, as Augustine said, 'Lord, you turned me around so I could look at myself in all my wretchedness and sin. Even when I tried to turn myself away from my faults you were there to constantly bring me back so I might look upon my sin and hate it' (cf. Augustine's Confessions, Bk. VIII, ch. 7, sec. 16).

Jesus went into the desert before he began his public ministry. He went into the desert to discern the Father's will for him. Here he was tempted, and here he teaches us.

Our Desert

In another manner the desert that Jesus enters is our own desert, the desert of humanity. Recall that the desert is not devoid of life but rather it is a place of simplistic life, straining to survive. Our humanity too is not devoid of goodness but on its own expresses goodness weakly and imperfectly. Christ, the fullness of creation and the wellspring of life, enters the emptiness of the desert.

The devil comes to tempt Jesus because he has put everything else aside in order to be with himself and the Father. The devil often contents himself on our own occupations: we distract ourselves from God and self with food, sex, television, friends, and an array of other things. The devil would rather have us distract ourselves. It is only when we grow closer to God that he visits that person.

The desert, furthermore, is an image of wandering. The famous example being Moses and the Jews wandering in the desert for a very long time. But reflect further that the Jews wandered in the desert so as to reach the Promised Land. The desert was a passageway. Many languished and perished in the desert, pulled equally by their desire to return to Egypt and reach the Promised Land (cf. Ex 16:3). Many did not want to reach the destination promised to them and thus wandered forever.

The devil desires that mankind wander in the desert of their own desires. The “Promised Land” is union with God. When our gaze is turned towards the eternal sun we transform our wandering. When we look to God, and the Cross, our time in the desert is a pilgrimage. When we satisfy ourselves merely with our desires we wander forever. We are all in the desert of our own desires, fears, and insecurities.

Is there a way out? The three temptations of Christ correspond to our the temptations we will experience in a life of faith. Though Christ is our example and strength, He calls us to emulate his actions—not in a literal-physical way, but a literal-spiritual way. For example: where Christ could go without food for 40 days, not all of us could. But if we have some attachment, some habit, or something that keeps us from God we are asked, as best as we are able, to give it up for these 40 days of Lent. Perhaps when Lent ends we continue the discipline we formed for ourselves.

Next time we shall look at the three temptations the devil presented to Jesus, what they mean, how Jesus overcame them, and the lesson we can learn from it.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

More than Enough to Win

A reflection on Sunday's readings (2/10/2013)
They may be found here, or if you go to mass! 

Coach Tom Thibodeau of the Chicago Bulls has battled a lot of injuries on his team the past two years. Reporters constantly ask him what he can do to win the next game—should they trade for a new player? Should they attempt something different and new? Thibodeau responds, without fail, every single time with this phrase: “We have more than enough to win.” He can say this because of the simple mantra he teaches his team every day, every practice: know your role, know your job, do your job. In the context of today's Scripture readings we can see these words as a great spiritual insight. With God we have more than enough to win.

When we look to Isaiah, today's first reading, he beholds the face of God and immediately laments. He cries out that he is a man of unclean lips in a land of unclean lips. Then God takes the initiative. His seraphim came and purged Isaiah's sin. Notice that it did not say Isaiah was blameless, but when he recognized his sins the Lord came to him. God strengthened him, but with that new strength God calls out 'Whom shall I send?' Isaiah leapt up, ready to do God's will. God does not leave us to our own devices when we respond to Him, but this works in two ways. When we turn to God we recognize our weakness and seek strength. In that newfound strength, however, God does not let us rest—he puts us to work. We pray to Him so we can know our job. He gives us the strength to do our job.

St. Peter is our model, as he so often is, in the Gospel reading. The Gospel writer adds a bit of a wrinkle that makes it different from Isaiah in an important way. Peter, his brother, and their companions had been working all day. We see how Peter was already predisposed toward Jesus because when he came to them Peter allowed Jesus to use his boat. Peter was a good man ready to serve the Lord. But then Christ asks a bit more of him: “Cast your nets into deep water.” Here we see, simultaneously, Peter's strength and weakness. He replies that 'I've been working hard all day, but at your command I will do as you say.'

He says, in a way, “I thought I was doing it right, but have nothing to show for it.' He believed himself full, but his net was empty. When he listened to Jesus his nets were not only full for himself but for everyone around him as well. This is when it strikes Peter: his nets were empty when he was empty—that is to say that his was empty until Christ was a part of it. Christ was not with him as a thought, or as some disinterested person. Christ was with Peter in his work and, with Christ, Peter had more than enough fish. In fact, the boats “were in danger of sinking.”

Peter's life before Christ may have been empty but with Christ it's almost too much to bear.

Peter, feeling that weight, falls to his knees. He recognizes his emptiness. His confidence turns to contrition the moment he witnesses Christ's power. He says “Depart from me for I am a sinful man.” Jesus, however, in showing Peter what he would accomplish with Him said 'Do not be afraid.' Then he gave Peter his job, “You will be catching men.” Then Peter, emptying himself and leaving everything behind, follows Christ and gains everything.
Don't just sit there. God has work for you to do too!
Brothers and sisters, we see in both the Old Testament and the New that God did not radically change Isaiah or Peter—he did not change who they were. They were not transported to another world nor were either of them told to simply sit in fear of their unworthiness before God. They were made to recognize what they weren't—perfect, sinless; they were shown what (or rather, who) they had—God; then they were sent to do their job—preach God to the whole world so they might do the same. In our studies and in our work we must do the same. We must not separate God from our work, for if we do not accept God into our work then our nets will be empty. When we do, however, we'll have more than we know what to do with., and that's all for the better. Do not be afraid of the work before you, do not be afraid of your sinfulness, nor be afraid of what you lack—if you find Jesus Christ and stay with him you'll have more than enough to win.

Friday, February 8, 2013

The Bread of the Eucharist: A Bland Reality?

 Some may say, whether they are Catholic or not, "Why is the ‘wafer’ and the ‘host’ so bland?"

Perhaps instead of us thinking of the Church as being cheap, stupid, or boring we should look at the intentionality behind the act. The host being “bland” is symbolic. See that the bread is, for us, a sort of deprivation. It is not special, it does not have an exceptional flavor, and with respect to other foods it is bland. But this is exactly the comment that the Church wants to make about Christ: that he became flesh like us. In comparison to the divine our flesh is cheap, and fallible, and bland. This does not mean that that our flesh is “bad” just as this normal bread is not “bad.” Christ, however, by his graciousness took on our weak and fallen humanity to raise it up. We proclaim through our very bread that humanity is simple and lacking, but not bad—in fact the body may be used for holy work and sacred things.

The bread that we receive is not merely a symbol, but it is a symbol given to us for our benefit—it is meant by means of earthly concerns to direct our mind to heavenly truths. Christ adopted our humanity so that God might adopt us. He “took the form of a slave” (Philippians 2:7) which is to say he was unassuming, common, and everyday. Even the people at the synagogue doubted his power when they asked “Isn’t he the son of Joseph?” (cf. Mt 13:55, Jn 6:42) In his common estate, however, Jesus expressed the power of the Spirit by virtue of his obedience to the Father.

God, incarnate in common humanity, confounded those who would never believe that the body could be redeemed or divinized. To those who believe, however, the bread we have stands as a powerful comfort to us who are still pilgrims.

More powerfully, Christ left us the Eucharist so we might partake of him for our whole lives. The Body of the Sacrifice was resurrected so that we might make continual sacrifice to the Father and that it might be one sacrifice all the same. This is because the Body we offer to the Father is His own, and the Body we offer can never be destroyed or pass away. For “when he became perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him” (Heb 5:9). “Jesus took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and giving it to his disciples said, “Take and eat; this is my body” (Mt 26:26). He did likewise with the cup, saying it was his blood.

The early Church herself attests to this reality. When Irenaeus wrote Against Heresies (circa 182 AD) the Eucharist was an important mark of the true Church:
The Church offers with single-mindedness, her gift is justly reckoned a pure sacrifice with God. ...[and we truly offer the first fruits of creation, that which is most loved] ... how can they [the heretics] say that [our] flesh, which is nourished with the body of the Lord and with His blood, goes to corruption, and does not partake of life? ... Our opinion is in accordance with the Eucharist, and the Eucharist in turn establishes our opinion. For we offer Him His own, announcing consistently the fellowship and union of the flesh and Spirit. For as the bread, which is produced from the earth, when it receives the invocation of God, is no longer common bread, but the Eucharist, consisting of two realities, earthly and heavenly. (Book IV.18.iv-v)
Irenaeus of Lyon didn't treat it as if it were simple bread.
Indeed, the Gospel of Luke relates to us the power of this most precious treasure. As the men from Emmaus leave Jerusalem Jesus meets them. Jerusalem is the image of the heavenly city, it is the place where Christ proclaims himself the Temple and where he sacrificed himself. The cross stands there, and thus heaven through the cross. The men meet him and Jesus walks with them. Even Scripture is explained to them and their hearts are on fire, but they do not turn back. It is only when Jesus “was with them at table, [took bread], said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them. With that their eyes were opened and they recognized him, but he vanished from their sight” (Lk 24:30-31). Does it not seem strange that Christ should vanish? But in the end he did not vanish: “this is my body, this is my blood.” They set out at once back to Jerusalem to proclaim that “he was made known to them in the breaking of the bread” (24:35). Yes, not even Scripture revealed this to them, but the bread.

Recognize our savior in the breaking of the bread in new ways. Reflect not only on the spiritual truths, but what the physical experience of it all relates to us.