Sunday, March 05, 2017

Christ in the Desert, Christ in Us

(First Sunday of Lent-Year A; This homily was given on March 4 & 5, 2017 at St. Mary's Church, Carolina, R.I. and St. James Chapel, Charlestown, R.I.  See Genesis 2:7-3:7 and Matthew 4:1-11)

One of the great Christian writers and storytellers of this past century is the British author, C.S. Lewis.  Professor at Oxford and Cambridge, his conversion story from Atheism to Anglicanism is alone a remarkable tale.  Lewis is the author of the amazing book series, The Chronicles of Narnia.  That series is known popularly today for the recent films it inspired: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.  These fantasy-fiction stories, of course, are all allegories for the Christian faith and tell the great story of Jesus Christ, the apsotles and the Church.

About a decade before the Chronicles of Narnia were written, however, Lewis had already produced another great fiction series, his Space Trilogy.  In these books, Dr. Ransom is the hero who travels to exotic planets and encounters creatures and peoples very different from our world, yet also very similar.  All three books contain the struggle of good versus evil, the battle for virtue and integrity, and the bonds of friendship that are forged in the fires of adversity.

The second book in the Space Trilogy, Perelandra, finds Ransom on the planet by that same name.  He encounters a striking young woman there, and after a while he comes to realize that she and her people are very much like human beings on earth with one great exception: they have never experienced the reality of sin.  In fact, this innocence and purity is more attractive to Ransom than even her external beauty.  Lewis simply refers to her as “the Lady.”  She understands that she is a creature, created by God, and that He loves her.  She, in turn, also desires to love God and follow His commandments.  

Not surprisingly, soon another character shows up on the scene, the “the un-man.”  He is completely fixed on a single goal: to lure the Lady away from God by getting her to break His central commandment.  He wonderfully weaves enticing arguments to convince her that breaking this commandment will open her up to entirely new experiences, a life unlike the one she is living, beyond what she could ever imagine.  Does this sound familiar?

Ransom, of course, is immediately aware of the danger.  He knows well what it means to break God’s commandments; he has already seen what this new “experience” has done to the people on his own planet.  He comes to the Lady’s rescue by arguing against the un-man.  For a while, in fact, he does quite well.  But then, slowly, something begins to happen: Ransom gets tired.  He is, after all, a human being.  He can only sustain the battle for so long.  As he inevitably drifts off to sleep, one final thought occurs to him.  While it is true that he will need rest and recuperation, that might not necessarily be the case for the un-man.

Upon waking, Ransom realizes that this terrible premonition has become a reality.  He quickly jumps into a conversation between the Lady and the un-man, the beginning of which he has never even heard.  He cannot sustain this struggle forever, and realizes desperately that he does not have the stamina to defeat this terrible evil.

In our first reading for this weekend, the story of Adam and Eve in the Book of Genesis is much less dramatic.  The struggle against temptation and the wiles of the devil end rather quickly.  Adam and Even give in and transgress the commandment of God.  Their sin brings death and sorrow into the human experience and the world is forever changed.  

So much for a good beginning to our Lenten journey!  But the Church places this story before us on this First Sunday of Lent for a reason.  The vital lesson that we learn right away is that we do not—of ourselves—have the power to defeat evil.  Whether it be that we give in suddenly and break the commandments, like Adam and Eve, or whether we fall after a long and noble struggle, like Ransom, in the end we will all lose this battle against the forces of evil.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes this desperate plight, and also signals the tremendous damage that can come through ignorance of the power of evil so often rampant in education, politics, society and the moral life (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #407).  We simply do not have the ability to defeat this malicious enemy.

And God knows that.

That is why God took on our human nature, and became man.  Jesus Christ is the God-man who enters into the desert in the Gospel this weekend, and meets the devil head-on, and face-to-face.  Jesus Christ squares off with Satan in the desert, and He defeats him.  Christ, in His human nature, is victorious in that struggle against temptation and forcefully commands: “Get away, Satan!”—Matthew 4:10

This powerful scene in the Gospel, and the celebration of the Eucharist here, reveals more than Jesus’ victory over temptation.  It anticipates His final victory over sin and death at the cross and His rising from the dead.  The risen Christ will send the Holy Spirit upon the Church and allow us to share in His victory over the devil and over death itself.  That is the great message of this First Sunday of Lent, and it is the great meaning of our Christian faith.  We do not have the power to defeat evil, but in Jesus Christ the victory is ours!  Christ lives in us, and now we can do what was never before possible by His power working in us (Colossians 1:27).  St. Paul says, with great confidence, “I can do all things in him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13).   

I would like to offer three powerful ways that Christ lives in us, for our reflection at the beginning of this Lenten season.  The first is rather obvious: Christ lives in us through the Sacraments that He instituted in the Church for this very purpose.  In Baptism, we are cleansed of original sin and the Holy Spirit is sent into our souls.  Christ lives in us like never before, allowing us to conquer temptation through the power of the Holy Spirit.  Even though we may fall 1,000 times, when we turn back to Him 1,001 times, the victory is His in us!  In the Sacrament of Reconciliation, we bring our sins, our faults and our failures before Him and we hear those awesome words from Christ: “I absolve you from your sins.”   In the Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist, we receive the body and blood, soul and divinity, of Jesus Christ, our Lord and God.  He lives in us, and so we have the power to live completely for God, no matter how weak and feeble we may consider ourselves in the tasks set before us.  Jesus Christ lives in us through the sacraments of the Church.

Secondly, Christ lives in us through the powerful truth He teaches us this weekend in that first refutation of the Devil.  Our Lord, in response to the temptation to turn stones into bread, proclaims:

"It is written: One does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes forth from the mouth of God."

—Matthew 4:4

We do not and cannot live by the things of this world only.  Having enough to eat is not sufficient.  Receiving an abundance of all that this world has to offer is, in the end, simply not enough.  We need more.  We need God.  Sacred Scripture draws us deeply into that relationship and friendship with God, into that intimacy that allows us to experience Christ living and working in us.  We experience what St. Paul describes as the fruits of the Spirit: Love, Joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).  When we spend some small amount of time each day, reading Sacred Scripture, our lives are refashioned, made new.  We are given the inspiration that helps us to see that we are children of God, co-heirs to eternal life with Him.  The more that we become immersed in Sacred Scripture, the more we will experience Christ living in and through us.

Finally, we experience the power of God and the presence of Christ working in us, not only in the Sacraments of the Church and in the revealed word of God, but also by making Christ known in the world that we live in.  The opposite is true for those who would hoard these riches we receive in Christ.  If we are reticent about sharing our faith and making Christ known in the world we live in, we risk losing even what little we believe we have in our relationship with God.  It is only when we can move out of ourselves, and make Jesus Christ known in the world that we live in, that we truly experience the power of Christ living and moving in us.  

As we enter this Lenten season, we ask Christ for the grace to have true and abundant life in Him.  May we come to see not only the victory of Jesus Christ over Satan in the desert this weekend, but may we also grow to share most fully in that victory of Christ over sin and death itself.  May Jesus Christ continue to strengthen and sanctify us all throughout these days of Lent, as we prepare for the great celebration of Easter and His resurrection from the dead.