The Dominican friar, Blessed Humbert of Romans O.P. once said "First the bow is bent in study, then the arrow is released in preaching..." These are the sermons and reflections of fr. Lawrence Lew O.P., a Friar Preacher (Dominican), illustrated with some of his photographs.
We can all think of ways in which knowing the truth about some situation sets us free. Think, for example, of the Oscar Pistorius trial: people, and especially the parents of the dead woman want to know the truth about their daughter’s fate. The truth doesn’t raise the dead but it does bring some closure, and so, some relief; a kind of freedom. A similar phenomenon is observed in the hunt for the missing Malaysian Airlines plane. The relatives of the missing are bound up by uncertainty, tormented by a lack of knowledge of what happened to their loved ones. Finding the truth, again, wouldn’t end the grief, but it does bring a certain freedom to move on with one’s life. So, it seems right to say “the truth will set you free”.
And this is what I thought Jesus had said in John’s Gospel. But on closer examination, he says: “The truth will make you free” (Jn 8:32). Because Jesus isn’t talking about a psychological state, nor is he making a political point, as the Jews seemed to have thought. Rather, Jesus is saying that the Truth transforms us and does something to our very being; Truth changes us. In John’s Gospel, we know that Jesus is the Truth, so we’re being told that Jesus is going to transform us. The all-creative Word of God will re-create us, make something new of us: we will be “made free”.
Now, it’s often said that what this means is that Jesus will make us free by causing us to choose what is good and true so that the more our acts conform to these, the more free we become; it’s a kind of moral freedom. But, again, I think this implies more a being set free from an old way of living, and admittedly, the reference to slavery to sin does lend itself to such an interpretation. But I want to explore something more existential, more fundamental, and perhaps, more mystical.
Who is it who is fundamentally Free? God. Only God is so free that he could create things. Only God is so free that he can become Man, and then undergo suffering on the Cross. Only God is so free that he can be Love, and even be sin, taking on our sins in Christ’s flesh. All these paradoxes are signs of God’s utter freedom. God is Free. So, when Jesus says the Truth will make us free, I wonder if this is a reference to our divinization. For Jesus Christ will make us, re-create us in his grace, so that we are one with God. Elsewhere, the language is of becoming sons of God in the Son of God. Hence, Jesus also says in today’s Gospel: “if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed”(Jn 8:36). That is to say, if the Son makes you God, you will be God indeed. It sounds almost scandalous, but then, this is what grace does: Through Jesus God divinizes Man.
And an image of this work of divinization is found in the First Reading. The furnace is made seven times hotter, that is perfectly hot. Fire stands for love, and perfect Love is God. So, Mankind, represented by the three young men, are placed in the furnace of divine Love, that is immersed and heated by God’s grace, so that we are purified and perfected and made like the fourth man who is “like a son of the gods”(Dan 3:25). It is Christ, of course, and so, divine grace proves us in the furnace of God’s Love until we become like the Son, made sons of God. Thus the Truth makes us Free.
What does this fiery furnace of divine Love look like? It is the Cross. During Passiontide, we are focussed on the Cross, and reminded, therefore, that every disciple is called to take up the Cross of sacrificial love, and so, follow Jesus into new life, even the divine life of God himself.
The serpent had tempted Adam and Eve to doubt God’s goodness and wisdom, and so, led to Man’s downfall. Refusing to depend on God, Man is cast out of the Garden and has to learn to fend for himself in the wilderness. But God goes in search of them, sending Moses to lead them out of the wilderness and back into a Land, a garden flowing with milk and honey. But in the wilderness Israel has to learn again to trust in God and his goodness and Providence. Adam and Eve had failed to do this when they bit into the fruit at the serpent’s bidding. So, now, when Israel fails again to trust God and they grumble against him, they feel the bite of their sin and unbelief. And this bite is fittingly administered by serpents, the very creature that first tempted Mankind into sin.
This is fitting because it reminds us that sin carries in itself our own punishment. For sin causes the separation of ourselves from God’s friendship, and brings a kind of disorder to one’s emotional life and one’s use of reason so that we find it hard to think clearly and rationally and to choose to do what we reason to be good and true. So, the disordered struggle to live the good life within ourselves and with others is the punishment of sin; we feel the fiery serpent’s bite which leads, ultimately, to death. Hence St Thomas says, we can “call sin punishment by reason of what sin causes, as Augustine says that a disordered soul is its own punishment”.
Notice that it is not so much that God punishes the sinner, but rather that our freely-chosen sinful acts, which reject the Creator’s wisdom and goodness, cause a state of disorder and moral confusion in Man. Hence, sinful acts are punitive because they deprive us of the harmony and peace and order for which we long. Thus we remain outside the Garden and in the wilderness. So, if God were to really want to punish us, he would leave us unrepentant, would abandon us to our sinful ways, and leave us without any help or guidance, nor call us to repentance. This state of being left to remain in unrepented sin, to “die in your sins” (Jn 8:24) as Jesus says today, is what Scripture refers to as “the wrath of God”.
So, when the people of Israel call for God not to be angry, they are calling for him to save them from the bite of sin and its poison. Thus, God’s mercy towards Israel is shown when he moves them by his grace to repent, and when he provides a remedy for their sin, an antidote. He calls them to look at the serpent, which is to say, to recognize their sins so as to repent of them. And as God once provided the solution for Israel and had mercy on them, so God has now provided for all of humanity. Jesus is the one and only Solution to humanity’s fundamental problem of sin.
Thus we need to look to him and, as he says to the Jews, believe that “I am He” (Jn 8:24). For we must learn what Adam and Eve and the grumbling Israelites failed to learn, namely to trust in God’s goodness, to believe that he is faithful to his Word, and provides the Solution.
So, when Good Friday comes and Christ is lifted up, let us look with faith at the antidote. In the Crucified One we see the destruction and violence wrought by sin, we see how Mankind is disfigured, beaten up, left dying because of sin. For thus you and I had been punished by our own sins. But at the same time we see too, on the Cross, our God of mercy and love who comes for our sake and for our salvation to bear the punishment of all Man’s sins – our sins – in his own body. Thus the Lamb of God takes away the sins of the world.
His Body, risen and glorified, defeating sin and death, thus becomes the medicine for our souls. In the Eucharist we come with faith to receive this Body, the true fruit of the Cross, the Tree of Life. We doubt no longer but taste and see that the Lord is good. In faith we receive the fruit of Mary’s womb, who saves us from the effects of that poisonous fruit of the Tree that Eve had eaten in Eden. And thus, we are restored to Paradise, brought out of the wilderness into the heavenly Promised Land.
Passiontide, the time when we turn our minds to Christ’s final weeks, begins on Sunday, and so the mood in the Gospels has been changing; they are menacing. For we heard earlier this week that the Jews wanted to kill Jesus, and this is heightened today: “Is not this the man whom they seek to kill?” (Jn 7:25). Today’s first reading gives us an insight into the real motivations behind this murderous hatred for Christ. It is because he is the Truth, and he shines the light of truth on Man’s sinful hearts.
Often people kill off God in their lives, and they can use the state of the Church, or the behaviour of the clergy, or the popular claim of some scientist or writer or even an entertainer as the purported reason to do this. And perhaps they believe at the time that this is the reason. But in fact, the true reason is a moral reason. For God; Jesus; his Gospel; Christ’s Church “is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions; he reproaches us for sins against the law, and accuses us of sins against our training. He professes to have knowledge of God… He became to us a reproof of our thoughts; the very sight of him is a burden to us” (Wis 2:12-15).
And so, just as Adam and Eve after their sin hide their faces from God, for “the very sight of him is a burden”, so when we sin we too hide our faces from God. Or rather, we hide God’s face from ourselves because we cannot bear the look of Truth. For our sins reveal the truth about who we are and what we really desire; it’s an inconvenient truth for us sinners. For as Rowan Williams says, sin is “the state of revolt against truth”.
So, we find that many would kill God off: saying God does not exist, or that his Church has no authority to teach in this or that arena, or that there is no such thing as absolute Truth and certainly not in matters of spirituality and religion. Because Truth, if we admit it exists, is such that he would possess us, convert us, change us. And this requires humility. As Pope Francis said, “truth leads to humility, since believers know that, rather than ourselves possessing truth, it is truth which embraces and possesses us” (Lumen Fidei, 34).
The journey of Lent is a journey from falsehood to the Truth. Hence, it is a journey towards the Cross. Those who sought to kill Jesus do so because, as Wisdom says, “Let us see if his words are true and let us test what will happen at the end of his life” (2:17). And these words are ironic. Because Truth is being put to the test to see if it is true. So, they crucify Jesus, and thus, on the Cross, he shows that his words are true. As Rowan Williams says: “Jesus, hanging on the cross, says to us, ‘This is what your untruth means”; we would kill Truth.
But what else happens on the Cross? Scruton says: “In the moment of sacrifice people come face to face with God”. So, at the end of his life, Jesus the innocent Victim of our sins shows that God is Love. And the one from whom we had hidden our faces is revealed to us. We see the truth. But not just the truth of Man’s sinfulness but the truth of God’s nature. God is mercy and love, long-suffering in patience and compassion, ever-ready to forgive. God is with us, sinful humanity.
And this truth, if we dare to see it, if we dare to allow it to embrace and possess us, will redeem us and save us from all our untruth, from our sinful revolt against Truth. Thus we enter into Passiontide and prepare for the new life that Easter promises.
In medieval English parish churches, two great images faced you as you looked from the nave towards the sanctuary and altar: a Rood Screen with the Crucifixion, and painted on the archway above that, the Last Judgement, or the Doom. So, the medieval parishioner would have had the Cross and the Final Judgement in sight whenever they came to church to worship. And so should we today.
What does it mean to have these images, these eternal realities, in mind? In looking at the Cross, we contemplate God’s mercy and the depths of his saving love. But the Cross is also our judgement. For as Jesus’ enters his Passion and takes up his Cross, he says: “Now is the judgement of this world, now shall the ruler of this world be cast out” (Jn 12:31). For the Cross reveals the cruelty and violence that sinful humanity inflicts on Man; it also shows the suffering and torment borne by all those who are victims of this sinful world. Hence, the world is judged, that is, to say that our world is faced with the stark truth of its sinful choices. For we are judged by the truth of what we do. Hence, Christ who is Truth itself, hangs on the Cross. Very often, people cannot bear to look at the Crucified One and contemplate the Cross, because we just cannot face up to the Truth. This, too, is why so many fear the thought of judgement, fear even confession, because they cannot face up to the truth of who they are and what they have freely chosen to do.
But to be only filled with fear or shame would be to forget that the Cross is also proof of God’s undying love and mercy for sinners; a Love who seeks us in order to raise us up to new life. I was in the Sistine Chapel last summer, and I was able to stand at the High Altar, looking up at Michelangelo’s great depiction of the Last Judgement. But as I stood there I noticed that the huge Crucifix on the Altar stands right in front of the painting of the Gates of Hell. So, the Cross of Christ literally blocked the way to Hell. But for it to do this I had to look and see the Crucified One. This is to say, I have to own up to the truth of my sins, to be judged by the reality of my sinful acts. But at the same time, as I acknowledge my sins, then I experience, too, God’s mercy and his saving love on the Cross. But we can’t just have love and mercy without the truth of our sinfulness. This is what judgement means.
Thus, in a poem on the Last Judgement, Pope Bl John Paul II (whose 9th anniversary of death is today) wrote: “It is granted man once to die, and thereafter, the judgement! Final transparency and light. The clarity of the events – The clarity of consciences –”. Judgement brings clarity; the light and transparency of truth to shine on what we have done but that light which shines on our deeds is also the light of love. The Doom, or Last Judgment painted on the walls of our churches were a reminder, then, of this final judgement, and St John speaks of it in today’s Gospel: “the hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice” (5:28). It is the voice of Truth.
However, St John’s Gospel, unlike the other Gospels, also has a more imminent view of judgement. We hear today: “The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live” (Jn 5:25). So, the Doom painted in the medieval church, or in the Sistine Chapel, is a perpetual reminder of our daily judgement. For every day, in the deliberate acts and moral choices we make, we are making judgements which reveal the truth of who we are; what we truly love in life, and where we’re headed.
Do we listen to Christ’s Word? Do we honour him by obeying his teachings? Ultimately, do we act with love? If we do, then we rise from the deadliness of sin and move towards Jesus. If not, then as the Catechism put it: “By rejecting grace in this life, one already judges oneself [and] receives according to one’s works” (CCC 679). Thus the Crucifixion scene, too, was a daily judgement because it reminded us of Christ’s sacrificial love, and called us as disciples to do likewise every day until, as St John of the Cross says, “in the evening of life we will be judged on love alone”.
At the start of Lent we were told to remember that we would return to dust and ashes, that is, that we will die and be judged. So, today, in mid-Lent, we’re reminded again of judgement; of Christ’s Truth but also of God’s eternal mercy and love. So, if you have sinned, don’t let fear or shame keep you from going to him in Confession. For God’s judgement is always also one of mercy and forgiveness, and his Love raises us from sin’s death to grace’s new life.
With language that is strongly reminiscent of the Song of Songs, the prophet Hosea closes with a love song, a passionate plea from God for Israel to return to him. There is something almost plaintive about the way God appeals to his Beloved people. But God is not just speaking to Israel. Today, he speaks to every human soul, to you and to me. For God is in love with Mankind.
As such, St Catherine of Siena called God a “mad Lover”, and she said to him: “Are you indeed in need of your creature? It seems to me you are for you behave as if you could not live without her… Why then are you so mad? Because you have fallen in love with what you have made! You are pleased and delighted over her within yourself, as if you were drunk for her salvation. She runs for you and you go looking for her. She strays and you draw closer to her. You clothed yourself in our humanity and nearer than that you could not have come”. So, the ultimate sign of God’s mad love for us is the Incarnation, which we celebrated on Tuesday, the feast of the Annunciation.
We need to dwell on this beautiful mystery; to marvel in God’s mad love for us, and to know in faith that Christ’s Incarnation is prolonged in the Eucharist. For our “mad Lover” clothes himself not just in our humanity, but even in bread and wine so that he can come so close to us, and be intimately united to us. This is the total love of God for us, that he gives us his whole Self – Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity – in the holy Eucharist.
Lent, which comes from the Old English word for Spring, is thus a time for us to listen for God’s love song again; a time to allow the divine Lover to woo us and seduce us; a time to soak up God’s grace, which falls like gentle dew so that we will “blossom as the lily” (Hos 14:5) and “flourish as a garden” (Hos 14:7). Lent is thus an opportune season to revel and grow in God’s love, which is why the feast of the Annunciation fittingly (often) falls in our Lenten springtime, to remind us of this. Praying before the Eucharist, coming to Mass, meditating on the Incarnation: these are ways to contemplate that ours is a God who loves us with his whole heart, his soul, his mind and strength.
Only when we know this can we love God in return. Only when we know God’s abiding love for us can we love ourselves. And only then can we love our neighbour too. It’s often said that the Lenten exercises of prayer, fasting and almgiving are about loving God, loving ourselves, and loving our neighbour. And this is true. But first of all – and we can never have enough of this – Lent invites us to pray and come here to Mass so that, as Hosea says, God can “heal [our] faithlessness [and] love [us] freely”. We are here to be loved.
Do you know others who are not here, who long for love? Then call them to come: Come here to Christ in the Eucharist; come here to be loved. As Pope Francis says: “[M]ay this Lenten season find the whole Church ready to bear witness to… the Gospel message of the merciful love of God our Father, who is ready to embrace everyone in Christ”. For this is how we can love our neighbour as ourselves: by bringing others here so that they can know and experience the love of Jesus Christ too.
The word law which comes from ‘lex’ in Latin is derived from ‘ligare’, meaning ‘to bind’. Hence, it is not surprising that laws are often regarded as constraining us. Laws seem to bind us and oblige us to do things we would not necessarily want to do otherwise. St Thomas thus notes that laws induce us to act or restrain us from acting.
However, the Law of God, which Moses receives and hands on to Israel, is binding in another way. Its purpose is to bind God to his people, and them to their God. More specifically, through the Law, God reveals his wisdom and goodness to Man, so that by observing the Law, Man can partake in God’s wisdom and goodness. The gift of the Law to Israel, then, is a sign of a privileged closeness and intimacy between God and his people. Hence, Moses says: “What great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is to us” (Deut 4:7). As such, the observance of the Law is a mark of belonging and being so near to the good and wise God. Through the living out of the Law, the people of Israel are being bound to God, united to his goodness and wisdom and life.
But this binding of God to Man and of Man to God reaches its perfection in the person of Jesus Christ. As we recalled in yesterday’s great feast, the eternal Word, God himself, took human flesh in the womb of Mary. Thus, in the person of Jesus Christ the Law is fulfilled. For in him God and Man are inseparably bound together; in him is God’s goodness, wisdom, and life. But it is not enough, of course, for Jesus alone to fulfill the Law and thus be united to God. God’s desire, in coming so near to humanity, is for all peoples and not just the Jewish nation to be united to God, too. So, Mankind is no longer to be bound to God by the Law of Moses but by Jesus Christ. Through the Incarnation, God has bound himself to Man so that we, Mankind, can come near to God, and be united to him. And we do this by co-operating with the grace of Christ given to us so that we keep Jesus’ Law, the law of love. In this way we are bound more closely to God. As Jesus says: “If a man loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” (Jn 14:23).
The Eucharist, of course, is the sacrament which signifies and strengthens this loving union with God. Hence we find that the text of Deuteronomy 4:7, which referred to the Law, was often used by the Church to refer to the Eucharist. “What great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is to us, whenever we call upon him?”, whenever we call upon him in the Mass. For here is the sacramental presence of Christ who is the Law-made-flesh, as it were; here, God is bound to Man and Man to God in a holy communion. Thus, the Mass brings the Law to fulfillment in our lives. And this great sacrament will remain and not pass away “until all is accomplished” (Mt 5:18), that is, until we have been made holy by its grace, and are lovingly bound to God in the kingdom of heaven.
Today’s great feast fittingly comes in the midst of Lent, not so much as a respite from its rigours, but as a call to enter even more profoundly into its essence. For as St Joseph and Our Lady went in search of the child Jesus, so, he helps us to seek Our Lord. And as St Joseph would lead Jesus and Mary into the Egyptian desert, so, he leads us more deeply into the desert of Lent. For St Joseph, who is silent throughout the Gospels, shows us by his example that faith invites a silent contemplation so that we can listen to God’s voice and meditate on the mystery of God made visible in Jesus.
As Joseph Ratzinger, our Pope Emeritus, once said: “Let us allow ourselves to be ‘filled’ with St Joseph’s silence! In a world that is often too noisy, that encourages neither recollection nor listening to God’s voice, we are in such deep need of it”.
Silence can be something that we are initially uncomfortable with, and it can be filled with our many thoughts and worries and anxieties. St Joseph had his share of questions and troubles too, as he pondered Mary’s miraculous pregnancy; as his young family had to flee from Herod as refugees; as he frantically searched for his lost son in Jerusalem. But in all this turmoil he remains silent, strengthened by his steadfast faith in God’s goodness and Providence. Angels direct his actions, by which we can understand that in his silence he listened for God’s Word, and he acted upon it. So silence, which begins with difficulty, eventually takes us, as through a desert, to a place of communion where we can be close to God and be comfortable in his Presence.
In the silence of deep prayer, which we’re invited into especially during Lent, we encounter Christ; silence gives rise to the eternal Word. This is who St Joseph contemplated in his silence. Tenderly holding the infant Jesus in his arms, as he’s often shown in art, Joseph pondered the wonder of God’s Love made flesh. This kind of silence, when we are with someone we love, is deeply communicative. As Joseph Ratzinger observed, “It is often in silence that we observe the most authentic communication taking place between people who are in love: gestures, facial expressions, and body language are signs by which they reveal themselves to each other.” This is the kind of loving silence that St Joseph invites us to join him in, if we will stay and adore the Blessed Sacrament after this Mass.
Finally, St Joseph’s silence, which is not empty but filled with love and faith, teaches us the only possible response, sometimes, when we’re confronted by the mystery of God. Ours is a world which craves words and explanations; comments, and opinions, and analysis. But, God is not a part of our world; he is its Creator, the Source of all being, and thus completely Other from all that is. So, as St Thomas Aquinas said, “This is what is ultimate in the human knowledge of God: to know that we do not know God.” So, St Joseph could only be silent before the great mystery and unknowability of God. As Joseph Pieper said concerning St Thomas, but which can also be said, I think, about St Joseph: “His tongue is stilled by the super-abundance of life in the mystery of God. He is silent, not because he has nothing further to say; he is silent because he has been allowed a glimpse into the expressible depths of that mystery which is not reached by any human thought or speech…” Hence, Joseph Ratzinger said, “In speaking of God’s grandeur, our language will always prove inadequate and must make space for silent contemplation”.
"What are you giving up for Lent?" That’s the question that many people ask themselves and one another at this time. And perhaps we decide to give up things like chocolate, or drink, or some sleep. And although we’ve just begun Lent, we may find ourselves flagging already. But those are just the things we think we can afford to give up. However, I have heard people say, for example, "I can give up coffee but I couldn’t live without sugar". So, there are some things too vital for us to let go of.
But what about St John Ogilvie? What did this martyr give up in Lent? His life.
For so many of us, material things like coffee, chocolate, wine and so on are the consolations of life. We like our comforts and luxuries, and we can become so attached to material goods that we even say that we can’t live without them! But the example of today’s saint, and indeed of all the holy martyrs, reminds us of how superficial we can be. For they not only gave up luxuries and comforts, but even that which is most precious: their life. Because the one thing they could not live without wasn’t sugar but the sweetness of the Catholic Faith. They detached themselves from all created goods – and even life when it was demanded of them – so that they could attach themselves to Christ who is the Truth. And the consolation they sought in this life was not material comforts but God himself who is our Life.
The example of St John Ogilvie thus gives a sharp focus, I think, to our Lenten exercises. We ask “what are you giving up”, but we should ask “Why am I giving things up?” Our Lenten renunciations are more properly called mortifications. We detach ourselves from material things in order to die a little – to die to our wants, our worldly attachments, our creature comforts, but more importantly, to our old habits and selfish attitudes. True penance, then, is not based on a calculation of what we can afford to give up, what luxury we can cut down on. Rather, it means giving up even what we need, what we once thought was vital! Thus Pope Francis said in his Message for Lent: “No self-denial is real without this dimension of penance. I distrust a charity that costs nothing and does not hurt”.
I don’t think this means that we should hurt ourselves physically. But it does mean that we could stretch our hearts to love better: to be kinder to those we find difficult; to look out for ways to help others; to serve the common good. We could die to our pride and learn humility: we restrain our craving for attention; stifle our petty irritations and prejudices; hold our tongues and guard our opinions. All these kinds of spiritual mortifications form our internal character so that a renewed, more loving and Christ-like Me emerges from Lent into the new life of Easter. So, external acts like giving up food and drink are meant to lead to this: a transformation of our heart so that we love better God and our neighbour. Otherwise, they’re futile.
Our mortifications and penances, then, whether during Lent or every day of our Christian lives, train and prepare us for that great mortification of Love, of self-sacrificial giving, of following Christ, that we’re each called to, and of which martyrs like St John Ogilvie are the supreme example. May he pray for us that we too will give up what is necessary in order to be one with Jesus Christ.
In medieval images of the Temptation of Christ, the Tempter is often depicted as a monk. But if we look closely, beneath his habit are the clawed feet of the Devil. What is the meaning of this? The artist, I think, wants to express the fact that every temptation appears good and wise, reasonable and just, and therefore, desireable to Mankind. Hence George Bernard Shaw once said: “I never resist temptation, because I have found that things that are bad for me do not tempt me”. This is precisely the point. Only those things that seem good and right and justifiable to us can tempt us. If they did not appear good and attractive we would not even begin to think of choosing them. Hence, the Genesis account we’ve just heard, which has such insight into the psychology of sin and temptation, makes this observation: Eve “saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired" (Gen 3:6).
However, as St Thomas says: “the good in view of which one acts is not always a true good [but] sometimes an apparent good”. For we can become so focussed on a particular good, so obsessed with getting what we desire that we lack perspective about the true good. It is as though we have had blinkers put on us so that we do not see the bigger picture. Every sin, therefore, involves a certain myopia because we can only see the transient good immediately in front of us but not the broader vision of the good as God knows it.
Thus every sin also involves a certain forgetfulness of God’s goodness and love. In the Genesis account, it is as though Eve forgets that God has loved her into being from nothing and has given her all that is. Instead, when prompted by the Tempter, she doubts God’s goodness and questions his Word, seeing God as a kind of restriction on her human freedom. But God is the source of all our being including our freedom; he could never be a threat to Man’s good but is, in fact, our highest Good and the Giver of every good gift.
But the tragedy of sin is that we forget this, and so we choose lesser, transient, material goods. Hence, Eve is so overcome by her desire for the good she sees in the fruit of the tree that she reaches out for it in spite of what God had said. In doing so, we’re shown by the Genesis account that every sin, at some level, involves a preference for my own vision of the good over and above God’s vision. Every sinful act, effectively says that we know better than God what is good for us and what makes us truly happy; we’d rather trust ourselves and put our faith in Man’s reasoning, Man’s knowledge than in God and his Word.
And, so, temptation leads us to choose some good, but only a partial good. We’re led to some truth, but only a half-truth. For this is the Tempter’s tactic – temptations come to us under the guise of a monk, and so, they appear wise or good. Hence Soloviev said: “Such temptations are not produced by a simple or direct denial of truth: a naked lie can be attractive, yet is tempting only in hell and not in the world of humanity. Here it is required to cover it with something attractive, to connect it to something true in order to captivate” us.
Therefore, when the Devil appears to Christ, he tempts him by appealing to something attractive, namely, bread to sate his physical hunger. Then, he appeals to something true: Jesus is the Son of God, so why not reveal his true glory to all people, lifted up by God’s angels before all in the Temple? And finally, he appeals to some apparent good, which is that Jesus should be given the whole world. Would it not be good for all peoples to be subject to Christ?
But as we can see, each of these goods are superficial. For as Jesus himself says: “What will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life?” (Mt 16:26). Moreover, the Devil tempts Jesus with a way to carry out his mission which would have avoided the Cross. In a similar way, Adam and Eve are tempted to attain divinity, to snatch at it, without the Cross, without having to learn to Love sacrificially. But whereas our first parents were deceived by the Devil, Jesus is not. For despite the attractiveness of the Devil’s temptations, Jesus rejects them because, ultimately, he chooses the true good which comes from God alone. He places his trust in God’s Word, and he remembers God’s unfailing goodness and love. Hence in his reply to the Devil we see Jesus’ faith in God’s goodness, his embrace of God’s wise plan, and his placing of himself at God’s service. Thus, Jesus chooses the Cross because, as St Paul says, it reveals the “power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:24).
Therefore, like Eve, Jesus sees that “the tree was to be desired”, but not the tree in the centre of Eden, but the Tree of the Cross on the summit of Calvary; the centre of the world. This is the Tree of Life that Jesus desired: it delighted his eyes and he saw that it was good because from it came salvation for the whole world. From the Cross, God the Father revealed the depths of his love for all humanity in the person of his Son. And from the Cross, humanity is taught to “be like God, knowing good and evil”.
Every Lent sets this lesson before us as we are invited to follow Jesus to Calvary and beyond to the risen life of Easter. But every Lent, and perhaps each day of our lives too, the Tempter also stands before us with half-truths and truncated versions of the good. With God’s grace, may we respond as Jesus does, saying, “Begone, Satan!” (Mt 4:10).
One of the images of Lent is that of going into the desert or the wilderness, for so Jesus did for forty days, and the people of Israel for forty years. However, what comes with the image of the desert is a place of blistering austerity, of hard stones and discomfort, of unpleasantness. No wonder, then, that so many people dread or fear the rigours of Lent; it can appear almost masochistic!
But I think we need to look at Lent from God’s perspective. Today’s Collect prays for God to “look with compassion” on us, and to give us his “protection”. In the book of the Apocalypse, the Woman clothed with the Sun, who stands for the Church, is taken by God “into the wilderness” for her protection, to keep her safe from the Dragon (Apoc 12:14). And, the prophet Hosea says that God will “bring [his beloved people] into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her” there (Hos 2:14). So, during Lent, God leads us, his beloved Church, into the wilderness for our protection, so that he can allure us and woo us, and show us his compassion. Hence in the reading we’ve heard from Isaiah, he says: “The Lord will always guide you, giving you relief in desert places” (58:11).
And how does the Lord show compassion? How does he give us relief? How does Lent protect us? In the same way, I think, that the Sabbath does. The latter part of Isaiah’s reading for today, the Saturday after Ash Wednesday concerns the Sabbath, which was given to Mankind as a gift from the Lord. All too often we can see it as an inconvenient commandment – that we are to keep the Sabbath holy – which, if we even remember it, gets in the way of work or shopping or other things we’d rather do than go to church. But as Jesus has said, “The Sabbath is made for man” (Mk 2:27). So, it’s not for God’s sake that we keep the Sabbath holy, or go to church, or cease from servile work – it’s for our sake.
Because, again and again people have come to me saying that they are stressed, over-worked, and feel enslaved to their desks and jobs. Like the dragon of the Apocalypse, our work and the demands of a competitive work culture, our deadlines and economic targets can threaten to consume us. But Life lived like this is imbalanced. So, the Sabbath is God’s way of ensuring a balance is kept in our life, that we not only work, which is vital for mankind’s dignity – there is something debilitating about unemployment as well as idleness – but that we also rest. For in the Sabbath rest we discover God who is a communion of persons, we discover the divine dignity that is fundamental to our humanity. Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi, thus explains that the Sabbath is the “still point in the turning world, the moment at which we renew our attachment to family and community… [It is] the one day in seven in which we live out all those values that are in danger of being obscured in the daily rush of events; the day in which we stop making a living and learn instead simply how to live”.
So, too, Lent is like an annual Sabbath. As Jesus called Levi away from his work in the tax office, so we are called to follow him into the wilderness each Lent. For God calls us into the desert to protect us; to speak tenderly and compassionately to us; to restore our spirits and strength, and recall us to “live out all those values that are in danger of being obscured”. So, during Lent, if we take up the opportunities it provides, we learn to re-discover community through almsgiving; we learn to re-balance our life and its priorities through fasting. And, most significantly, we learn “simply how to live”, indeed, how to love through prayer. For through prayer know that we are loved; through prayer Christ calls us away from the wild-ness of our world to follow him into the Lenten wilderness where we can rest in God’s love, where God can speak “tenderly” to Man.