Let us join in prayer for those victims, families and others touched by the horrendous school shooting in Florida this past week. May Our Lady as sorrowful mother console and walk with them.
We are in the season of Lent when we are called to reflect on our lives and our behaviors, in preparation for walking with Jesus in His passion and in anticipation of His resurrection. Lent is a time for healthy and honest self-examination. It is an invitation for conversion. Saint John Paul II wrote that real conversion is not a negative but the freeing discovery of God’s mercy. So while the journey of conversion requires confronting ourselves, our practices and our behaviors which we might prefer to avoid, genuine conversion lifts us closer to the Father in Christ and results in greater peace despite the swirls around us including the many forms of violence in our culture. Whether we discover that mercy of God and experience that peace is up to us.
A little boy fell out of bed one night. His mother asked, “What happened?” The little boy responded, “I don’t know. I guess I just stayed too close to where I got in.” These forty days of Lent will be spiritually productive only if we allow ourselves to enter into it fully, move in from where we get in. That means taking advantage of spiritual reading, the sacrament of reconciliation, special prayers such as Stations of the Cross, anything that encourages us to better understand what is happening in our lives, pondering our relationship with God which is often reflected in our relationship with one another, and making adjustments as necessary.
Every year the Gospel for the first Sunday in Lent relates the temptations of Christ. In the Gospel of Mark, today’s reading, the description is very brief and therefore very pointed. It immediately follows the baptism of our Lord when the heavens opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him like a dove and the Father spoke the words “this is my beloved son, listen to him,” revealing Jesus clearly as the Son of God. Lent is a special time to listen to him; how we respond to him may determine the salvation of our souls.
“He remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan. He was among wild beasts and the angels ministered to him.” John the Baptist preached: “Repent and believe in the Gospel.” Those words from Mark’s brief reading identify the opportunity this season of Lent offers. We are all tempted which also can be defined as being tested, for we live among wild beasts in our culture and in our nature. The antidote is to repent and believe the Gospel, to grow in understanding of God’s covenant expressed in the first reading, a covenant reaffirmed in our baptism. It is a covenant of love symbolized by the cross. When we embrace Jesus as Lord and friend we allow the angels, God’s messengers, to minister to us.
Jesus was tempted. There is something comforting and encouraging about the fact that Jesus experienced this part of life. It is comforting because we are tempted and tested in many ways every day. Thus there is nothing wrong with us because we are; it is part of the human condition. It is encouraging because Jesus resisted, and because he invites us to follow his example, believes we can, and has given us through baptism and confirmation the grace to help us do so. The first step in dealing with temptation is to honestly know what they are and to genuinely want to resist them.
Some temptations are apparent, some are subtle. They may change with our age, time, and situation. They can come through appeals to our passions, to our pride, to our complacency, and to our weakness of faith.
While we occasionally face blatant temptations, especially immediate pleasure seeking, our greatest challenges are more subtle, deceptions of the mind that turn us away from God. Some years ago I sold a car and the buyer wanted me to put down on the form a lesser amount than he paid, so his sales tax would be lower. He promised to share his savings with me. Ah, temptation to steal. I paused but declined.
We priests are charged to resolutely present church teaching even when not well received because they are from Christ. But sometimes I am tempted to down play them in order to be liked, to be a cool priest, to avoid rejection. We can play mind games that rationalize us into the same unworthy results a less worthy motivation would also bring.
In our day one of the most destructive and divisive temptations is rushing to judgment, thinking the worst about others and sharing those dark thoughts which affect others reputations. Some years ago a parishioner vehemently condemned to me a woman who had just left her husband. I was not free to tell her about the physical abuse that woman had been enduring. We don’t always know as much as we think we know, and can give into the temptation of rash judgment and gossip.
There are two ways of relieving temptations. One is by giving in. Experience tells us that is no solution, because the more we give in the more we give in again. They begin to control us. The second way is to resist them, as did Jesus, deflect them before they get controlling. This requires us first to admit those temptations with which we struggle, own up to them when we have allowed them to overwhelm us, and ask God’s forgiveness and grace. Then freed from the burden of the past, we can strap on the armor of Christ in sacrament, Scripture, support of the faith community, which will help us deflect them. Over time they will come to us less and less often.
This Lent ponder the temptations you struggle with and confront them. The key is to repent and believe the Gospel, which is a gospel of mercy and love.
That is what conversion is all about, every day growing closer to God and recognizing that we are not strong enough to go it alone. These forty days of Lenten reflection and repentance give us a chance to exchange our temptations and sins for the joy and hope belief in the Gospel, which means belief in Jesus Christ as Lord, friend and healer. Lent 2018 can be life changing, unless like the little boy who fell out of the bed, we stay too close to where we got in.