Circular Letter: Lent 2009
Victory Beneath the Cross
Lent is a time of special graces ordered to renewing our spiritual life and centering our lives more consciously on what is most important: God and His holy will. Since it is a time of grace, it is also a time of trial. Trials are sent to us so that we can sharp tune our moral choices, so that our love be purified and grow to maturity. In this holy season, we may feel even more poignantly the burden of our character faults and habitual sins (or even addictions). The crosses of daily life may increase and weigh us down more than usual. Moreover, with the uncertainty of the political and economic situation of our days, along with the very evident decline of moral principles around us—where black is called white and white black in the name of “tolerance” and everything is allowed in our schools except the name of God!—a certain unnamed fear and insecurity arises in our hearts, which also oppresses our spirits and challenges our trust in God and His final victory. We want to cry out, “My feet almost wavered, my steps almost slipped, for I was envious of the ungodly, seeing the prosperity of sinners” (Ps 72:2-3).
Trials are also closely related to temptations. First we should note that temptations do not come from God. St. James says, “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted with evil and He Himself tempts no one” (Jas 1:13). Yet, along with other trials and crosses, God allows temptations so that by choosing properly, our souls may be purified. Pope Benedict writes in his book, Jesus of Nazareth, “Love is always a process involving purifications, renunciations and painful transformations of ourselves—and that is how it is a journey to maturity” (hereafter=JN, p. 162). As a fallen race, there is plenty within our own human nature that draws us down and tempts us to put pleasure, comfort, power or fame above God’s law. But the devil also tempts us. He is the great seducer, the “father of lies”, and the enemy of our race who tries at every moment to trick us into the snare, taking advantage of our weaknesses and luring us to turn to the things of this world. Or, by instilling fear or frustration, he tries to make us lose heart and despair of ever fulfilling God’s law, leading us to turn our backs on Him in bitterness and resentment.
In this holy season, however, God is ever present and His grace more abundantly available to us, helping us to resist temptations and respond well in trials, to take up the cross in union with Jesus and follow Him courageously to His Easter triumph. In becoming man, Jesus descended into all the misery of our lowly state, becoming “like His brethren in every respect, so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make expiation for the sins of the people…. For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb 4:15). Jesus, God and man, is the perfect man who teaches our fallen humanity how to live in a truly human manner, as intended by the Creator, in the midst of the trials and temptations of daily life. Though our continual failures discourage us and lead us to the point of despairing of ever overcoming our own weaknesses, Jesus is with us, showing us the way. He does not give up on us, nor does He want us to give up. He takes up the cross with us and shows us the way, not as one who looks down upon us, but as one who is truly with us. “For because He Himself has suffered and been tempted, He is able to help those who are tempted” (Heb 2:17-18). From Him we want to understand what is at the heart of every temptation, so that with Him we will find the grace and strength to overcome.
The Temptations of Christ
Every year on the first Sunday of Lent, the Church reads the Gospel of the temptations of Jesus. After being baptized by John in the Jordon, “the heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon Him in bodily form, as a dove, and a voice came from heaven, ‘Thou art My Beloved Son, with Thee I am well pleased’” (Lk 3:22). Immediately after this divine confirmation of His mission, Jesus was “led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Mt 4:1). He who came as Savior, as the Redeemer of mankind, began His mission not with great miracles, discourses or the multiplication of bread, but in the desert, alone, fasting forty days and forty nights, and in a direct confrontation with the devil. Jesus came to “cast out the strong man”, to overcome the powers of evil, in order to take on His divine shoulders the lost sheep and bring him home. This is how He began His messianic mission, and this confrontation continued in every moment throughout His life until His final, paradoxical victory on the Cross.
Before examining the individual temptations of Jesus, we first want to make some preliminary remarks about trials and temptations in general. Love is at the heart of the issue: our love for God. Do we truly love God above all things? Do we trust Him in distress and believe that He is good, the Good above all others? Or as St. Therese puts it, do we give Him “counterfeit money” by paying Him lip service without living up to it (cited in Fr. Stephane Piat, Celine, p. 81). Through trials and temptations we truly come to know ourselves and the modest measure of our faith, hope and charity. Making good use of our falls, God keeps us grounded in humility and shows us how much further we need to travel on our journey towards Him. As Pope Benedict writes, temptations lead us “from a superficial piety to profound union with God’s will; man needs to be tried. Just as the juice of the grape has to ferment in order to become a fine wine, so too man needs purifications and transformations; they are dangerous for him, because they present an opportunity for him to fall, and yet they are indispensable as paths on which he comes to himself and to God” (JN, p. 162). God sends us trials, therefore, for our good, out of love for us and to lead us to Himself. This must be our firm and unwavering conviction if we are to come out victorious. The holy angels remind us ever again of this truth, “God is love!” (1 Jn 4:8). They help us to see above and beyond every trial the loving and wise hand of God which ordains it.
The Demand for Bread and the Proper Order of Goods
Let us turn now to Jesus in the desert. “If You are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread” (Mt 4:3). This is the first temptation: if You are the Son of God, prove it! Time and again throughout His life Jesus is asked to give a sign, to make Himself known, to perform some great miracle so that there can be no doubt. Again and again He declines, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign; but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Mt 12:39-40). Since this matter is connected with the second half of the temptation, we pass on to consider the theme of bread: “command these stones to become loaves of bread”!
The promise of bread is the natural expectation of a redeemer: to rid the world of hunger and any other social concerns, this would certainly prove that He is the Son of God. As Pope Benedict notes, Marxism makes the same promise—“the desert would become bread” (JN, p. 30). A similar challenge is directed to the Church: if you are the true Church of God, then your first commitment should be to solve the problem of hunger. The rest can come later. Hunger is a real problem and a real concern of both Jesus and the Church. Yet in order to understand the answer of Jesus, we follow Pope Benedict in turning to other passages in the Gospels concerning the topic of bread.
In his book, Jesus of Nazareth, the Holy Father notes that on more than one occasion Jesus was willing to multiply bread, the very thing He rejected before as a temptation. Why? Whether or not Jesus would perform a miracle always depended upon the faith and disposition of the persons involved. In this case, the people had left everything to hear His word in the desert and had accepted it with faith. They “opened their heart to God and to one another; they are therefore ready to receive the bread with the proper disposition” (JN, p. 32). The miracle is preceded by three conditions: First, by the search for God and His word, and the desire to direct one’s life by His truth; secondly, by humble petition for bread from God; and finally, by the readiness to share with one another. From listening to God’s word in faith, we are instilled with love for Him; and this love in turn becomes a living faith when it opens our hearts to our neighbor. “Jesus is not indifferent towards men’s hunger, their bodily needs, but He places these things in the proper context and the proper order” (ibid.).
The second major encounter with the theme of bread is the Last Supper, which topic is also treated in the Eucharistic discourse of John chapter 6. “I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is My flesh” (Jn 6:51). Jesus comes to give His life for our salvation, our eternal salvation. He does not come to satisfy our earthly desires or even our natural needs. He is concerned primarily with the eternal destiny of souls, immortal souls created in the image of God. True, He does not wish to see us suffer, but there is an order and primacy of goods, of the spiritual over the natural. As St. Paul says in the midst of his physical afflictions, “We do not lose heart. Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed every day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2 Cor 4:16-18).
In this light we can better understand the answer of Jesus to the tempter: “It is written: ‘Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord’” (Mt 4:4, citing Deut 8:3). So even if it seems that the world is falling to pieces around us—politically, economically, ethically—this is not our first concern. These things can affect us and our families, but this is not the greatest evil. The greatest evil is when we lose God from our own hearts, when we consent to evil out of fear or desire for ease. “So long as the [devil or the world] cannot wrest God from you, your deepest being remains unharmed, even in the midst of all the evils that threaten you” (JN, p. 166). To illustrate this point, the Holy Father cites Fr. Alfred Delp, the German Jesuit who was executed by the Nazis: “Bread is important, freedom is more important, but most important of all is unbroken fidelity and faithful adoration” (JN, p. 33).
Even though as Christians we are called to participate in social action as much as our talents, position and state in life demand, we need to be concerned first of all with the keeping of God’s law, with the moral uprightness of our own hearts. “If man’s heart is not good, then nothing else can turn out good, either. And the goodness of the human heart can ultimately come only from the One who is goodness, who is the Good itself” (JN, p. 34; cf. Lk 18:19). Secular humanism can never serve the true dignity of man, for that dignity is based on God. And hearts without God, who live on false philosophies and are rooted in materialism, will ultimately fail in serving the true good of man. Marxism is but one proof of this truth. It is only from the depths of human hearts that any real change of the world can take place. Only when we have become good can we do good, even on a material level. One victory over self offered to God out of love affects a transformation, and not just of ourselves. The holy angels can take our small sacrifices of love and apply them towards the conversion, for example, of our neighbor or of one in political power. In this light we wish to understand Jesus’ response, “that we do not live by bread alone, but first and foremost by obedience to God’s word. Only when this obedience is put into practice does the attitude develop that is also capable of providing bread for all” (JN, p. 34).
Trusting God without Putting Him to the Test
The second temptation is again a veiled demand for proof of Christ’s divinity. The devil takes Jesus to “the pinnacle of the Temple, and said to Him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw Yourself down; for it is written, “He will give His angels charge of you,” and “On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone”’ [Ps 91:11-12]. Jesus said to him, ‘Again it is written, “You shall not tempt the Lord your God”’ (Mt 4:6-7). It is ironic that the devil presents himself as a Scripture scholar. It is a warning to us that Scripture, when not approached with a believing and listening heart, can be distorted to fit our own purposes. The heart of the matter, however, lies in Jesus’ response to the tempter. He refers to a passage in Exodus, where the people were rebelling against Moses for lack of water, and in so doing, were really rebelling against God. “They put the Lord to the proof by saying, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?’” (Ex 17:7). Their point and purpose was that God submit to their demands for proof. “He is ‘tested’, just as products are tested. He must submit to the conditions that we say are necessary if we are to reach certainty. If He doesn’t grant us now the protection He promises in Psalm 91, then He is simply not God” (JN, p. 37).
It is characteristic of modern mentality to deny as real anything that cannot be experienced with our senses or proven by laboratory experimentation. By subjecting God to such a demand is already to deny Him, to put ourselves above Him by requiring Him to be and act according to our standards. It discards “the whole dimension of love, of interior listening…. To think like that is to make oneself God. And to do that is to abase not only God, but the world and oneself, too” (JN, p. 37). Psalm 91 speaks of the unlimited trust we should have in God. Rightly interpreted, this does not give us the right to “test” God and make Him a slave to our whims. The Holy Father connects this temptation with the Cross. Jesus “did not tempt God. But He did descend into the abyss of death, into the night of abandonment, and into the desolation of the defenseless. He ventured this leap as an act of God’s love for men. And so He knew that, ultimately, when He leaped He could only fall into the kindly hands of the Father” (JN, p. 37).
In this sense, like Jesus on the Cross, we can have that unlimited trust in God. If we seek His will and obey His commands, we know that even if there is no man who can help us, God will still be for us “My refuge and my strength; my God, in whom I trust!” (Ps 91:2). He loves us with an eternal love. He may not free us from the evils of this life, but by grace He will carry us through our trials and save us in eternity. “My grace is sufficient for thee, for My power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9). This is the faith of the martyrs, and to which every Christian is called. We pray, therefore, “Keep steady my steps according to Your promise, and let no iniquity get dominion over me!” (Ps119:133).
God’s Ways are not Man’s Ways
In the third temptation, the devil promises to make Jesus king over the whole earth if He will bow down and worship him. This temptation is a questioning of the whole mission of Jesus. Through His Resurrection Jesus does become King and proclaims, “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given Me” (Mt 28:18). Yet this Kingship is not a passing, earthly reign, but comes from God and passes by way of the Cross. Pilate had offered the people a choice between Jesus and Barabbas. Barabbas was a “robber”, or rather, what we would call “a resistance fighter”, who in leading a political uprising, committed murder. His name, “Bar-Abbas” or “son of the father”, was a messianic name, a savior. Pilate therefore offers the people a choice between two savior figures: Barabbas, who wants to bring reform by force and political power, and Jesus, who has these strange ideas about the grain of wheat that must die and losing one’s life in order to save it. Pope Benedict asks, “Is it any wonder that the crowds chose Barabbas?” (JN, p. 41). (continued on p. 4)
In essence, this temptation concerns what is expected of the Savior of the world. After Peter proclaims Jesus to be the “Christ, the Son of the living God” (Mt 16:16), Jesus goes on to tell His Apostles that He must suffer greatly, die and rise again on the third day. Peter, however, does not agree that this is the way the Christ should act and vigorously remonstrates with Him. For this, Jesus sharply rebukes Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do” (Mt 16:23). We expect God to show His power, to set things straight once and for all, to introduce the golden age in the way that appeals to our natural reason. Yet Jesus shows us the way of sacrifice and love, the way of seeming powerlessness, the way of the Cross. This way alone leads to the Resurrection. “The earthly kingdoms that Satan was able to put before the Lord at that time have all passed away. Their glory…has proven to be a mere semblance. But the glory of Christ, the humble, self-sacrificing glory of His love, has not passed away, nor will it ever do so” (JN, p. 44).
This temptation is relevant in every age: Faith and religion, it is thought, should solve all the world’s problems, otherwise they are worth nothing at all. Afterall if Jesus has not brought us the end of hunger and world peace, what has He brought us? “The answer is very simple: God. He has brought God…and now we know His face. Now we can call upon Him. Now we know the path that we human beings have to take in this world. It is only because of the hardness of our hearts that we think this is too little. Yes indeed, God’s power works quietly in this world, but it is the true and lasting power. Again and again, God’s cause seems to be in its death throes. Yet over and over again it proves to be the thing that truly endures and saves” (JN, p. 44). “You shall worship the Lord your God and Him only shall you serve” (Mt 4:10; cf. Deut 6:13). If we lose God, we have lost everything including ourselves. But in God, we have all things, even with the loss of goods or life itself, for in Him is Life! When we put God first, then we will also learn reverence for man and true love and service towards our neighbor.
“The angels came and ministered to Him”
At the end of this first round of temptations, “the angels came and ministered to Him” (Mt 4:11). We know we can count on the help of the holy angels in all our trials and struggles. If we seek God with all our heart, “…He will give His angels charge of you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, lest you dash your foot against a stone” (Ps 91:11-12).
In this Lenten season, therefore, we want to take a resolute stand against our character faults and habitual sins, and strive to live the love of Christ towards our neighbor. Like Jesus, we want to bring God into this world, first and foremost by the constant conversion of our own hearts, that we may be transparent for Him. The angels are for us a guiding light who warn and admonish us, but also give us courage and consolation to continue to fight the good fight, even when it seems there is no use. They inflame our hearts with trust and love for God, and inspire us with little deeds for our neighbor. In this way, in union with Jesus and by the light of the angel, through constant and fervent prayer, we will become beacons of hope in a world which is driven by lust for power and pleasure, with utter contempt for human life. By God’s grace, walking along this little way of sacrificial love, we will ultimately participate in Jesus’ triumph under the banner of the Cross.
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