Noting how the devil’s temptations of Jesus resemble children’s make-believe games, Fr Bob Eccles invites us to accept the wonderful, transformative reality of God’s Easter love.
On the first Sunday of Lent, the Church always has us listen to the gospel of the temptations Jesus suffered in the wilderness when the Tempter came to him, when he was hungry. We all know that story very well. The three attempts on Jesus, the three failed attempts to build him up only to break him down.
Are you curiously reminded of something by those familiar temptations of Our Lord, something we all know but have nearly forgotten? Let’s think back. To magic some stones into food to make yourself a picnic. To launch yourself from the housetop and glide down to earth like Superman. To bow down very gravely to someone or something that isn’t God, to mimic real worship. Yes – you surely wanted to do something very like that when you were a little child? Who ate pretend sandwiches, or desired to float downstairs, or dressed up to say Mass?
Aren’t these just the very kinds of make-believe that small children dream up, and maybe even act out in their play. With children we call that, their imagination getting to work, it’s natural in them to show a spirit of invention. Children at play are exploring the possibilities and limits of the world, that’s how they learn. So we approve of that. But we keep handy the first-aid box in case of cuts and bruises!
But the same behaviour in adults? We call that fantasy. To fantasize, that’s to refuse to grow up and take responsibility, live in a dream. He’s with the fairies, we say of such a person. The advertisers try to get at us through our fantasies: to possess this super-car, this cool hairdo, this expensive aftershave will change my life. (Helen, pass the Pagan Man!) Jesus also proposes change, have a change of heart and believe the good news, he says, that’s why he came travelling all through Galilee. And arrived at the Galilee of our hearts. Only He is for real.
Be converted, have a change of heart: on Ash Wednesday we get the message. But to change we have to see who our own gods are, name those gods, if we are to turn our backs on their worship. Our own temptations try to get us to fall back into our fantasies, so we no longer see straight, what the Marxists call mystification. When we no longer realise and see clearly what really has a hold on our lives. Satan is a very good psychologist, he is like a shopkeeper, he knows what every woman wants, every man too. And you don’t see him coming!
So what are they, the powers that want me to march to the beat of their drum? Maybe they include some monster I’ve got used to calling god, but who is actually a tyrannical perfectionist, whose moralising disapproval has nothing to do with the one true God who has given His Son, His gentle humble compassionate Son, in an act of pure love for the world. If we teach children only the god of do’s and don’ts, they soon see through him and grow out of believing in him, serve us right. Who invented this strict goody-goody god? Perhaps it was me?
Jesus taught that we should be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect, He didn’t teach us to be perfectionist because the heavenly Father is perfectionist! The heavenly Father is perfect, He is perfectly God, and we are to be perfectly human, which means to admit that we are failures and dreadful hypocrites. After all, what do we have to pray to be admitted to Holy Communion? Look not on our sins but on our goodness? What is it we pray? (asking the congregation) “look not…” The opposite of sin isn’t virtue, it’s faith. Our loving God isn’t coming to look for our goodness, thank goodness for we haven’t any goodness that is good enough, He is looking for our faith. He isn’t to be pleased by us becoming other-worldly, He wants us to be a tad more human. Let’s think about it? I am not the faultless religious whose halo is ready to polish. You are not the romantic version of the family. Yours are not the children who are never up to mischief. This is not the church that never failed people, was it ever? Even Bentley the parish dog has been known to steal my toast.
Sin is never original, more’s the pity. The book of Genesis talks realistically, so does St Paul, about a situation, a structure of sin, there since the beginning, since we were conscious of ourselves at all. The truth of the matter is that humans will pass up on their friendship with the Lord God who came to walk with them in the garden in the cool of the evening, as the story tells, that relationship of trust and obedience. Biblical anthropology, the story of Adam and Eve, a very subtle and intelligent exploration of human nature, roots the real original sin in not being contented with God. It was never God who abandoned His children and left them in the dark. The Creator was not a hidden God. It is we who hid from Him, ashamed to be seen by Him.
We know that not because it’s a fact of life, we know it in the light of Easter and the Resurrection. When the risen Lord appeared in the closed room on Easter Day and said Peace be with you, breathed out the Holy Spirit on the disciples who had betrayed Him and fled, then they knew what a happy fault had merited so great a Redeemer. When the Church was given power to declare God’s great forgiveness, then she was enlightened to understand the darkness of sin. When the Easter flame is lit, that light shines down every page of the Old Testament. It is only when we are rescued that we realise how lost we have been. So far does the gift outweigh the fall!
The tempting in the desert is the Deceiver, the Satan, trying still to pin down and dis-able our humanity by means of its big ideas, just as with Adam and Eve. The gospel writers are mostly not so subtle as the authors of the story in the book of Genesis, but don’t we recognise what is going on? The Satan whose strategy never changes is still trying to outwit us by beefing up our fantasies of superiority and power and privilege, which, he persuades us, represent the things we really want, the things that alone can make us happy.
The New Testament tells us that Jesus was tempted in every way that we are, but He did not give in. We are the Jesus people so we are part of the story, then. Those temptings of Jesus in the wilderness work on the behaviours that are not worthy of thinking beings who are destined to share the life of God. What is the task of the Church here? To offer a running commentary on our failings and mistakes? Or to give us the means to live our faith expansively, compellingly, delightedly?
The good news is that Christ has defeated the Satan, in the desert and at the Cross: He has robbed Death’s empire of its prey, we sing in our Good Friday hymn. That is our Creed, that is the faith of the Church, that is the mystery we have come to share in the Eucharist. So is it true? Do we believe it?
If we do, then angels will come and look after you and me. But in the meantime the ashes were blessed and given us on Ash Wednesday to remind us who we really are and what is the only thing we have to look forward to, unless Christ is Lord, unless there is forgiveness of sin, and unless death has no dominion. Lent begins in dust and ashes because that’s realistic, it says something about who we are. We are made of dust. But then so are the stars, as our kind friend Sister Gemma once said on Prayer for the Day. But we’re not going to stay with the ashes! We are off to climb the holy mountain of Easter!