Ed. Note. The Bellarmine Forum is pleased to present the Homily of Fr. John Paul Erickson, Director of Worship for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and priest of the Church of Saint Agnes. This homily was delivered on Quadragesima Sunday (The First Sunday of Lent, 2013) at the Church of Saint Agnes. Father Erickson is one of the most articulate and clear voices among the presbyterate today and has graciously given us permission to reprint his homily here. He clearly marks out the battle lines and all Catholics will do well to make this part of their Lenten meditation.
First Sunday of Lent
Jesus Christ, Savior of the world, was not led into the desert for simple peace and quiet, a kind of retreat prior to His public ministry and inevitable death.
Christ is led by the Spirit into the desert, the barren wasteland that is in so many ways the antithesis of the Garden of Paradise, so that He might find the enemy, and to announce the good news that is His own person to the Father of Lies. It is of course a proclamation of salvation not for the sake of conversion. The “Light Bearer” had long ago tragically abandoned his post, never to return. No, this preliminary encounter with the Enemy, a prelude to the great combat unto death that would take place some three years later, was to announce the beginning of the end of the great reign of terror that is the world without Jesus. It is in the desert, the lonely, barren, infertile desert that the Lord of All seeks out the Lord of this World, standing before the Great Pharaoh, and proclaiming to the emperor of sand and dust – “You WILL let my people go.”
In the Gospel vision put before us on this first Sunday of Lent, the evil one proposes to Christ, who is the new Adam, escape from the wasteland into which He had entered. One might say that in the three temptations placed before Christ, the enemy promises a kind salvation, illusory as it is, repeating to the Son of Man the lie he has been offering since those horrible days after the fall. For since the banishment from the Garden, man has wandered in the desert of fragility, mortality, and misery. Demanding independence from their Father, the sons and daughters of Adam have found the alternative to be the squalor and grime of the swine herd. But unable to muster even the courage of the prodigal son, mankind through the ages has chosen instead the quick fix offered by the enemy, the “salvation” that only leaves wounds and procures death.
The enemy of course can not create – he can only warp and pervert. The enemy finds it necessary in the Gospel confrontation today to quote Sacred Scripture, as if he could teach to the Author of All anything. And yet here we see the true character of the evil one and of his tactics – he takes the truth, and subverts it.
Bread is indeed necessary for the life of man. And not only bread, but all of the physical needs it represents – shelter, clothing, sustenance, authentic nourishment of all kinds – all of these realities are profoundly good, and it must be acknowledged that millions of human souls live now burdened by a radical poverty we can not even imagine, starving for the bread Christ seems to so easily dismiss.
We must be clear, as the Church is clear – social concern must always be a part of the authentic Christian life. We are our brother’s keeper, and this means we must do what we can to feed and support our neighbor in need.
But the satisfaction of the physical needs of man, as grave as they are, will never be enough. A salvation that offers only bread is not salvation at all. Any political regime that promises its people physical nourishment, as long as questions of eternity and ultimate human destiny are avoided, is tyranny and inhumane. Indeed, it is demonic.
The second temptation proposed to Christ, to hurl Himself headlong off the pinnacle of the temple, offers another glimpse at the promise of salvation offered by the enemy within the desert of the fallen world. The temptation of the devil here, it seems to me, is not simply one of presumption. Rather, the enemy is proposing to Christ, as he proposes in such radical ways in our own day and age, that Jesus challenge the laws of nature, ignoring the way in which God has created the world. And again, this invitation is offered, and accepted, in startling ways all around us. Whether it is in the creation of human life within the test tube; or by means of the frantic and desperate attempt to cure disease and physical infirmity through the barbarism of experiments on fetal remains; or by the stubborn denial of human nature and the complementarity of man and woman, and the radical importance of physical gender – in all of these blind pursuits and foolish, frightening experiments, man accepts the cooing of the enemy to jump into the abyss, and to trust that everything will be ok in the end, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.
The laws of nature, including the law found within the human heart, must be obeyed and heeded if we are to live well in this fallen world. There can be no lasting salvation found in doing whatever we are physically, or intellectually, or mechanically capable of doing.
The third and final temptation of the enemy is certainly the least subtle, and might even be described as rather desperate. Power, raw power, is offered to the new Adam, in exchange for the little price of the worship due to God alone. Upon a high mountain, a hill, the enemy offers to Christ the power that is the devil’s – power over the kingdoms and principalities of the world throughout its many generations.
In the midst of an empty desert, the wasteland within which fallen man wanders, this promise of power can seem to be just the salvation we are looking for. Control – we wish to control circumstance, people, the truth, God himself. We do not want to be victims anymore, subject to anyone or anything beyond ourselves.
How often we genuflect before the liar, eager to do whatever we must so that we might control and manipulate and rule? And yet, power that is not rooted in submission to God and to His law, is a power that will corrupt and destroy, enslaving, if you will, “the one who wears the ring.” To kneel before the enemy is to lose the capacity to walk.
Control over one’s destiny cannot be secured by grasping it, but rather by submitting to God and to God alone.
The three temptations proposed to Christ are not the temptations of the seven deadly sins. Rather, they are temptations to misunderstand salvation itself, and the imperishable gift offered in Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen one.
In today’s Sacred Liturgy, on this first Sunday of Lent, in 2013, Jesus Christ stands before the enemy of all that is good, true and beautiful, to proclaim the unveiling of the victory that is His.
“You would dare to offer to my people the promise of bread that will rot? It is I who will give to my people the Bread of Angels.
You would dare to invite my people to hurl themselves towards the ground in vain pursuits and dangerous folly? It is I who will cause my people to rise from their graves and to ascend to the right hand of God.
You would dare to pledge to my people kingdoms of dust and ashes? It is I who will grant to my people an inheritance of Divine Life that no earthly power can rival or diminish.”
The desert, that place of barrenness, will be made new in the person of Jesus, despite the raging and conniving and desperation of the Devil. From the pierced side of the Savior, hung high upon the mountain of Calvary, streams of living water will flow into the valley of death and will revive it, drowning the chariots and charioteers of the enemy. This barren wasteland will become a place of refreshment and rest, and death will be no more… but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be within it, and the servants of God, reborn by means of these living streams, will reign forever and ever.
My dear brothers and sisters, within these forty days of Lent, let us look to the Crucified – the true and only Savior. Let us meditate upon His love, His mercy, His resolve to save. Let us not refuse the salvation offered in Him who is the refreshment for whom our souls thirst and hunger. And let us submit to the One who hungers for our love, the One who is vulnerable to the Will of God, the One who is nailed to His throne.
Come, let us adore Him. Let us be free. Let us live, forever.