Friday, May 29, 2009

2-10-2008: 1st Lent (A)

Genesis 2:7-9;3:1-7/Psalm 51/Romans 5:12-19/Matthew 4:1-11
Satan steals center stage in today’s readings. He’s the common thread between Old and New Testaments: tempting Eve to gain knowledge, and Jesus to make bread. An important lesson is hidden beneath both dramas: temptation tempts us with good not evil things. The drama of human life is seldom experienced as a choice between an obvious good and an apparent evil. Rather, as St. Thomas would have it, it’s about choosing the greater good above all other goods, which involves timing and circumstance. In the classic Catholic understanding of sin there are few acts which are inherently evil, but a person’s intention and the circumstances involved can make even a good deed turn bad. Conversely, if the act itself is inherently evil, no intention (no matter how noble) and no circumstance (no matter how understandable) can ever make it good. Nothing is exempt, not even the most noble endeavors or accomplishments -- religion, perhaps, being the best example.

Satan’s temptations in today’s gospel acknowledge Jesus’ divinity but want him to deny his humble humanity. In Genesis knowledge isn’t evil but, in context, obedience was more important. “When Jesus asked Peter Do you love me? He wasn’t asking Peter to prefer him to all the ugliness and filth of the world,” Dorothy Day once wrote, “but to choose him above all other loveliness and beauty.” And that’s not easy at all.

Lent is at the very least an uncomfortable annoyance: symbolic acts of penitence, giving up things we like, doing a little extra here and there. But if we take Lent really seriously, it serves as an invitation of sorts, beckoning the main character in today’s readings to enter the drama of our lives. No, not Jesus -- Satan. But why would we ever want to do that?

In the “older” books of the Old Testament Satan was not a personification of evil but an emissary of God, sent to tempt in order to reveal to the one tempted his need for God. Our Lenten practice is meant to do the same: reveal desire. And then comes the hard part. Acknowledge the desire to be, in itself, good, while subordinating it to the greater good. Eve’s desire for knowledge, like making bread from stones, is a good; but, for both Eve and Jesus, at that particular time, in those particular circumstances, there were greater goods to be had. Jesus “overcame” the temptation to deny his fragile humanity while Adam and Eve gave into the immediate gratification, ending up somewhere East of Eden.

Satan, the revealer of desires, can be a frightening guest. But Lent neutralizes his more dangerous threats, enabling us through prayer and self sacrifice to engage those desires, see them as good – but never as good enough for us who have been chosen for greater things than these.

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