Our Lent starts with stories that take us from the garden to the desert. We begin with Adam and Eve in God’s good garden. Sadly, they, and their descendants after them, brought chaos to this garden. The story tells us that Adam and Eve had everything they needed, including a remarkable relationship with God who liked to stroll around the grounds with them in the cool of the evening.
Suddenly this wily creature appears before them and begins to sow doubt in their hearts, suggesting that God is a tyrant who does not allow them to eat from a certain tree. The heart of the temptation is to think of themselves rather than of God; to be egoistic and live for themselves rather than live for God. This is a radical shift – one hundred and eighty degrees change in direction. Instead of love and reaching out to the other, they are tempted to turn in on themselves, become narcissistic and selfish, greedy and hungry for power to the extent that they want to be gods beholden to no one. They can no longer accept that they are mere creatures totally dependent on God for everything. No longer accepting their lot as creatures they want to unseat God and become gods themselves.
This of course, broke their relationship with God which is summed up so beautifully in Psalm 131. “O Lord, my heart is not proud, nor haughty my eyes. I have not gone after things too great, nor marvels beyond me. Truly I have set my soul in silence and peace, at rest as a child in its mother’s arms, so is my soul.” This is the loving trust that our first parents lost out on when they tried to become like God knowing good and evil.
The tempter shows up again with Jesus. But this time it’s not a garden but a desert. This is highly symbolic. The beautiful paradise that God created for us is becoming more and more like a desert thanks to our sinfulness, greed and exploiting the earth for our own selfish purposes. It is here that Jesus wants to begin a new creation, not only in the desert of the world, but, more importantly, in the desert of our hearts.
Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert. In this simple sentence, we are told that Jesus has changed direction back again to God. Where Adam and Eve turned away from God and in on themselves, Jesus has opened his heart to God once more and allowed God, and not selfishness and egoism, to be the chief driver in his life. The tempter is all too aware of this change of direction and will do anything to dissuade Jesus from his course of action. Notice in all the temptations he is asking Jesus to use creation for himself. This is where the downward spiral of sin begins. To use creation and others for oneself is to plunder the earth for one’s own selfish needs. It is to exploit and enslave the other to feed one’s own greed. It is even to use God for one’s petty needs rather than rejoice in serving our loving creator. The tempter says: “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to turn into loaves”. Jesus’ reply is profound: “Human beings live not on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Thus, Jesus is saying, ‘don’t put God at the service of your own interest’. It’s a matter of we fitting into God’s plan rather that forcing God to fit into ours. Always seek first God’s reign and God’s justice. At every moment listen to God’s Word.
The great temptation today is to live for bread alone: to condemn ourselves to materialistic living where we simply live for the here and the now. Call it mere horizontal living where there is no reference to the vertical dimension of God in our lives. But that’s exactly what today’s consumerist society is all about, namely, dragging people to a consumerism without limits and to self-satisfaction. All this does is generate emptiness and meaninglessness in people, along with selfishness, alienation and irresponsibility in our living together?
Jesus is pointing out a new way, a way of loving trust in God along the lines of Psalm 131. On good days we may remember this, but, with the hassle and bustle of life we can easily turn in on ourselves and give God a back seat. Lent is a time to change direction and renew our friendship with God. It is to learn again to trust in God’s great compassion for us. It’s a special season of grace. Here we realise how much we need to be forgiven, renewed, and sanctified, as individuals and as a community.
In the desert, far away from all distractions, Jesus created an empty space for God in his life. Lent has a similar purpose. By fasting, prayer, and almsgiving, we create an empty space where the grace of God can flourish. It’s a chance to cut down our intake of the unfulfilling fast-food of the social media and look for the nourishment of Scripture and spiritual reading. Or just stop amid our activities for a few minutes every now and then, just to register the presence of God, the wonder of existence, or to pray the Angelus, a psalm, or whatever prayer we find useful. What is grace but the divine, re-creative presence at the depth of everything! Jesus was deeply rooted in that presence in the barren desert, and it made him immune to the tempter’s suggestions. Turning to that divine presence, in a turning-about of our very lives. There we find the life and renewal that we all so badly need, not only for our own sake, but in order to share it with others.
Jesus came back from the desert charged with new energy, healing people right and left, and ready to pour forth those words that shook the world and still shake it. He can help us cultivate a spirit of love and friendship and develop solidarity with those who suffer. It is he who helps us listen to our conscience responsibly and open ourselves to the final Mystery of life with hope. Let us follow him into the silence of the desert so that we can stay the pace with him in his passion and death, and rejoice with him on that glorious Easter Sunday morning.
Sunday, 5 March 2017