St Eugene’s Cathedral
Francis Street, Derry
BT48 9AP | Tel: 028 7126 2302
These have been worrying days and weeks, not just for Ukraine but for Europe. If we ever needed proof, it is clear from the horrors of war that evil exists. Lent is an invitation to journey into and through that reality – not being afraid of the truth and not being overwhelmed by evil. What can we learn from this First Sunday of Lent?
Firstly, at his baptism Jesus sees clearly that he must now start his mission of taking away the power of sin and death. And he is immediately tempted to avoid that difficult journey to and through Calvary.
That is a recurring theme in the scriptures. Very early in the Bible, we encounter Adam and Eve, made in God's image and likeness, being tempted to disobey God's instruction. It is a simple story, but it has a deep meaning. The devil is cute. He draws the pair into a discussion about this strange law. They are flattered into believing that taking the forbidden fruit would actually be good for them and that God is a spoilsport. They are told that it will be a liberating experience. Our first parents see an attractive fruit and give in.
What is the point of the story? Even though we are made in God's image and likeness, we have free will and we are subject to temptations to do stupid and destructive things. Jesus also faces what are seductively sensible temptations – to avoid pain by feeding people's basic needs, showing off or taking political power. But he resists the temptation by quoting from the Old Testament law. He takes God's instruction seriously. Doing the right thing is not easy. Very often the right way is the route less travelled. The temptation is strong to take shortcuts and to do what seems most convenient and attractive. But narrow self-interest rarely serves the common good or the welfare of others. To make it harder, the commercial culture says that we should obey our thirst and just feel good. Selfishness, self-indulgence and self-interest are proposed as virtues for 'normal people'. That message may serve the market that wants to exploit our hungers. But it does not serve our dignity or destiny. Today Jesus experiences that temptation to look after self rather than taking on a huge challenge. And he faces down the devil.
Secondly, our culture moves between loving to condemn evil in others and finding it hard to acknowledge evil in ourselves. We seem unsure as to what constitutes wrongdoing. Scandal is great news when we are given grounds to criticise people in the past or present. But we resent anyone telling us what the right thing is to do in our lives. We love getting up on our high moral horse – but react angrily when anybody else does it! We seem unsure as to whether the are things that we all know are wrong or whether morality is merely a question of what I think is right for me here and now. But Jesus knows that the horrors of sin will not be overcome by showmanship. Sin has to be acknowledged – and that will cost him everything.
That challenges our cultural assumptions. Often enough the response to any moral teaching is to say "Why not?" or "I make up my own mind." But today's Gospel tells us that it is folly to pretend that what suits me is the measure of morality. "Obey your thirst" is a dangerous motto. What may seem a short-term gain may well end up being a long-term disaster. We can all be tempted to play down the power of wrongdoing, especially when it applies to us. But sin and its consequences are terrible. There is no great wisdom in pretending that sin does not exist.
These next months will be very challenging for many people as price-rises bite. Will our parishes be highly visible in their concern for the needy - whether from this parish or from the Ukraine? Will we nourish people with love and not on bread alone?by Author
Thirdly, having resisted the temptations, Jesus will show that generous self-sacrificing love overcomes sin. Lent reflects on what needs to be changed if we are to make ourselves bearers of grace into the world rather than bearers of disgrace. He will have to deal with the effects of oppression and marginalisation on the lives of those who were judged to be outsiders. He will challenge those who exploit the poor and apply religious laws heartlessly. The synodal pathway in the Irish Church can learn from today's Gospel. We seek to discern where God is leading us, as Christ's disciples. There will be the temptation to be unfaithful to the challenge of the Gospel and to court popularity. There will be the temptation to think that stricter laws alone are a substitute for self-sacrificing love. The synodal journey will lead to Resurrection – but that path will go via Calvary. Any denial of this truth is self-serving. We do not live on bread alone for the human heart yearns for love and mercy. That is why Pope Francis says that a synodal way of being church involves conversion on the part of all of us. Those who presume to know the mind of God from listening to voices within their own echo chambers are not listening to the conversion call of God in Jesus. Those who are stuck in the exile of their own certainty will never be open to being led by the Spirit through the desert to the Promised Land. We are all called to repent of the devil's tools such as fear, arrogance, anger and victimhood that will block our hearts to following Jesus.
Thus, this First Sunday of Lent is not just the beginning of a six-week period. It invites us to hear again Christ's permanent call to face temptation and sin with trust in the power of grace. It is an ongoing invitation to be nourished by the bread of life throughout the year. These next months will be very challenging for many people as price-rises bite. Will our parishes be highly visible in their concern for the needy - whether from this parish or from the Ukraine? Will we nourish people with love and not on bread alone? Will we challenge the powerful when they seek to benefit from the poverty of others? Will be reach out or just be concerned with looking after ourselves? As with the example of Jesus, people will take us seriously if we take others seriously. And that is why I encourage everybody to take this season of Lent seriously as a time of prayer and penance. If we allow ourselves to hear the Gospel message and learn to resist the temptations to be self-indulgent, we will die to part of our lives and be open to resurrection. If all we dream of is a return to overindulgence on Easter Sunday, we will have wasted this Lent. Today, how to we react to this temptation?
+ Donal McKeown
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