Saturday, 20 February 2021

1st Sunday of Lent Year B

Year A’s Gospel, which is taken from Matthew gives us a full display of the temptations of the Christ. In Mark, the 3 Temptations barely warrant any mention. The scant details we have are firstly, the Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness. Secondly, there, in the desert, He was tempted by Satan and was surrounded by wild beasts. Finally, He was ministered to by angels. Brief though the descriptions may be, we hear the echo of Ash Wednesday’s imposition of the ashes that we are to repent and believe in the Gospel. Jesus gave this exhortation at the end of His desert experience. For us, it comes at the beginning of Lent.


If our starting point is repentance, what is it? It is a process more than it is an event. An event connotes a single moment that may be incidental to one’s life when in reality repentance as a process describes our journey of conversion and therefore of the struggle to conform to Christ. Since our pilgrimage of life takes us through the valley of tears, we also grow in the realisation that throughout this lacrimarum valle, temptation will always be our companion.


An elderly religious once answered a question on the certainty of his priestly vocation which he replied, “I won’t know for certain if I was truly called until they hammer in the last nail in my coffin”. On the one hand, even then, one cannot be sure that that priest really did have a sacerdotal vocation. He could have just stayed on because he did not know where else to go and life was too good. (A good indication of this is when a priest does no work or has no drive to minister or he wants an easy life). On the other hand, this wise quip of the elderly cleric highlights for us the ubiquity of temptation for as long as one is alive.


This spiritual reality is reflected in a petition of the Sacrament of Anointing. A person is already quite dead, mostly immobile, and incapacitated and yet the prayers goes like this: “Free him from sin and all temptation”. When I first gave Extreme Unction, my reaction was always, “Err… what sin? What temptation?”. The point is life is not life if there were no temptations. In fact, they are heightened more so during Lent. It makes sense that the Spirit drove Jesus into the desert. There, in the wilderness, He faced Himself—being surrounded by the wild animals is a good icon of the temptations that Jesus grappled with.


Perhaps it is testimony that life has become soft and easy that we have come to expect a smooth and easy journey through life. It is as if life owes it to us to ensure that we should not be tempted. Nothing erodes the confidence of the modern person more than his inability to control his destiny. Our existential loneliness is aggravated by the Pauline dilemma whereby we cannot understand why we do what we should not and do not do what we should.


A reason for the severity of this feeling of being forsaken is that zeitgeist of the present milieu is deeply self-made. We seem to delight in our capacity self-definition or self-determination.[1] Hence, when confronted with the mystery of temptation, we are deeply aware how alone we are, and in failure, we experience an acute sense of abandonment by God.


When tempted, we may just react in two ways. Why bother? After all, we have been forsaken and we wallow in a hopelessness best exemplified by Oscar Wilde’s despair. “I can resist anything except temptation”. Alternatively, we feel done to or aggrieved that we should even be tempted. How can God let us be tested that much? It is the “Why me?” phenomenon we hear so frequently.


Consider the contrast between grey and black. The disparity is not as great as the difference between black and white. That is the contour of the temptations of Christ. He would have felt even more tested than we can ever be. Why? He was sinless and therefore the scourges of any temptation would be even more agonising. In other words, we should not be “discouraged” but instead take comfort that Christ Himself had been tempted.


Temptations arise because of the vocation to goodness (or holiness). Sadly, the notion of a good life is no longer a struggle of living virtuously but rather a good life is largely equated with an easy life. Like the man who wanted to build a bigger barn to store his grains. Our modern equivalent of this notion of an easy life once again takes its inspiration from Oscar Wilde. “The only to get rid of temptation is to yield to it”. If we assess the level of hedonism surrounding us, it must be true. We are no longer motivated by the noble or have the drive to excel in virtue. If present usage in English has a way to describe this plateauing of our motivation, it is this: to be good, one has to be “bad”.


That there can never be a moment where we will not be tempted can be frightening. But, if repentance is a life-long process, then we should expect to be surrounded by the wild beasts of our temptations. We will have to face them and possibly spend a whole life exorcising our demons. We might think of our temptations as external to us, but they are not—many tussle with the demons inside us.


Lent’s penitential disposition is hopeful because it is our training ground. It is the battlefield for the virtue of following and conforming to Christ the Lord. The saints in their struggles for a virtuous life will attest to this—the closer we intend or desire to get to God, the stronger will our temptations be. We are by no means finished products. We are always in the process of becoming what God has called us to be. If the angels ministered to Jesus, we can trust that the Lord Himself will look after us, no matter how sore the temptations can be. So, we should never be surprised by temptations and we should even be less surprised by our failures because Lent is a time to rely on Christ for the strength of resistance and purification. Our ultimate deliverance from the struggle with sin can only come through Jesus for He has overcome the tempter.

[1] 100 years ago, there were only 50 independent countries. Today, there are more than 200. Countries are personal self-definition write large. At more psycho-social level, the whole gender-identity politics is possibly another expression of this “self-definition”. No longer will nature dictate who I am. I determine what I am.