Sunday, May 1, 2011

Homily for the First Sunday of Lent

De scientiae boni et mali
Lectio Prima

Instruction for the First Sunday of Lent
13th of March, 2011

Parish of Saints Peter and Paul
Rev. Mr. Michael Taylor

·         First Sunday of Lent: Concerning the knowledge of good and evil.
·         Second Sunday of Lent: Concerning our Holy Calling
·         Third Sunday of Lent: Concerning why hope is necessary
·         Fourth Sunday of Lent: Concerning what is pleasing to God
·         Fifth Sunday of Lent: Concerning why our faith is salvific
·         Sunday of Our Lord’s Passion: Concerning how to be a martyr

How many of you have ever been sick? I mean really sick. Like laying stretched out on the couch, praying for death sick? Now how many of you, when you were sick, had someone come up to you and say, “Wow. You look like death warmed over”? It’s the care we bring that really makes us special. Now imagine, that when you’re sick, laying in your sweats, on the couch, praying that the lunch you had stays down, someone comes up to you and say, “you need to fix your hair, it’s a mess” or “you need to clean up the house, it’s a wreck” or “come on, put some better clothes on, have some dignity.” You would be livid. No one would ever think to offer those suggestions to someone who is sick. It doesn’t make any sense.
      When we are sick and suffering, we don’t handle criticism well. It is the same with sin. We are a culture that does not take criticism well, because we are sick with sin. I don’t mean runny nose sick. I mean cancer sick. I mean stomach flu sick. So, when the Church, especially in the time of Lent, talks about our sins, it is the same as telling a sick person they look like a mess. We just don’t handle it well. We come up with all sorts of excuses. How many of you have heard, “I’m not religious, I just try to be a good person.” Or, “everybody sins, it’s just human nature.” But that’s missing the point. We’re not good people. We’re sick. We need help.
      Lent is first and foremost a time of penance, to remind ourselves of our need for forgiveness. So often it is heard, “I just don’t get anything out of going to Church,” or “well that practice may be fine for you, but it’s not my cup of tea.” If we do not receive from Church, it is because we are so immersed in sin, that we are incapable of receiving grace. Can the person with a fever enjoy the chill of a brilliant autumn day? Can a person with a cold enjoy the fragrance of fresh baked bread? Of course not! So too is it with the person who is chained to sin. If you do not receive God’s grace, it is because you have not confessed yourself a sinner.[1] If you cannot hear God’s voice, it is because you have not heard the cry of the poor.[2] If you do not experience God’s forgiveness, it is because you have not forgiven your brother.[3]
      All of our works are for naught though if we do not confess our sins. It perhaps seems odd that confession is necessary. But we must remember that confession lies at the heart of our faith. Consider the words of Saint Paul, who reminds the faithful that if you shall confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.[4] Christ Jesus himself told his disciples, whosoever therefore shall confess me before men, him I will confess also before my Father which is in heaven. [5] Confession of our faith in general is necessary because it reminds us and those to whom we proclaim our faith that we are dependent upon God for everything. Most importantly, we are dependent upon God for mercy and forgiveness, for against God alone have we sinned. [6]
      But God has seen fit that we should profess our sins before men.[7] In the book of Leviticus, the Lord commanded the Israelites, is shall be, when he is guilty in one of these commandments, that he shall confess that he hath sinned in that thing: and he shall bring his trespass offering unto the Lord for his sin which He hath sinned…a lamb…for a sin offering and the priest shall make an atonement for him concerning his sin. [8] Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, [9] provides us the sacrificial offering for his priests, whom he has entrusted the power to forgive sins. There are those who say that why should they confess their sins to a human being when they can just tell God their sins. Are we to question the command of God the Son himself when He breathed the Holy Spirit upon them and said, whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them: and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained? [10] Did Jesus not entrust entrance into the Kingdom of God to Peter[11] when He said, I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth, it shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven? [12]  And again, James, first bishop of the Church in Jerusalem, wrote in his epistle, Confess your faults one to another. [13] Those who refuse to acknowledge their sins before Christ’s Church refuses to acknowledge their need for mercy from Christ Himself.   If we want our Lent to be meaningful, we need to understand just how great our sin is before God. We can fast, pray, and give alms everyday, but it will not mean anything if we are not contrite of heart.[14] The Lord will not reject a contrite heart.[15]
      Yet sin is difficult to understand. This is because sin is a privation, a corruption of the something which is good. For everyone of the seven deadly sins, there is a good at their core which has been corrupted. So if we want Lent to be a period of purification, we need to learn how to discern the difference between good and evil. This is the story of our first reading, and is at the heart of the temptations of Christ Jesus in today’s gospel. Much has been written about these temptations, but there are three points which I wish to emphasize today. The first temptation concerns consumption and gluttony. The second temptation concerns discernment of what God is actually saying in order to avoid vanity. The third temptation concerns pride.[16]
      In the first temptation, we are told that Jesus has been fasting for forty days and forty nights. Chances are, he’s pretty hungry. Indeed, no one would fault Jesus for creating food for the nourishment of his body, because human beings are created in such a way that it is natural for us to eat. We need food, we need water. It is natural for humans to want these things. But when they are taken out of right relationship, when they are misused, then they become the occasion of sin. Our need for food becomes the sin of gluttony. Our need for clothing and shelter becomes greed and envy. And man’s natural desire to be loved as well as to reproduce and have children becomes the sin of lust. This is why Jesus rejects Satan’s temptation, not because eating is bad, but because it serves as a distraction to the greater good, which is union with the Father through prayer.
      In the second temptation, the devil tries a different tactic: he quotes scripture. He quotes Psalm 91 which does promise that God will send his angels to protect his chosen one.[17] So why is this bad? Because it’s taking scripture out of context. Look back to our first reading today. The serpent, tempting Eve, asks exactly what God has commanded. Eve answers, of the fruit of the trees that are in paradise, we may eat, but not of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of paradise, God hath commanded us that we should not eat; and that we should not touch it, lest perhaps we die. [18] Notice that Eve said they shall not even touch the fruit. But that is not what the Lord actually said. His actual command was of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat. For on that day, whosoever shalt eat of it, thou shalt die the death. [19] God says nothing about touching the fruit. Often, we misuse scriptures to suit our needs or desires. That is what Satan tempts Jesus to do. It would be easy for Jesus to rationalize jumping off the building. Doesn’t scripture say to trust in God? [20] Would not the Lord protect His anointed Son? [21] But Jesus knows that there is the greater truth, which is thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.[22] If we want to discern good from evil, we need to know the bigger truths found in scripture. Paul says to Timothy all scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness. [23] But this is limited, for Saint Peter says, know this first, that no prophesy of the scripture is open to private interpretation, for the prophesy came not in old times by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke moved by the Holy Ghost. [24] For this reason, Saint Paul also states that the Church of the living God is the pillar and ground of the truth. [25] There are many people who will try to use scripture to justify all sorts of actions. But if they speak apart from the Church, than it is not God who is speaking, but their own opinion. And the end result is always a spiritual leaping off of a tall building. It is always good to remember Christ’s response, thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.
      The final temptation is the root of all sin, which is, of course, the sin of pride. There is the belief in all that we can do it all on our own. Jesus knew that he was meant to rule to the world. Adam and Eve knew that they were meant to live with God, sharing in His divinity, sharing in his divinity. But Jesus is meant to rule in union with the Father as the Son, not through a king established for Himself. Man is meant to live with God, not in opposition to Him. Our pride often leads us to think that we know the best way to have a relationship with God, to live a moral life or to be a good person. “A man is said to be proud, because he wishes to appear above what he really is;” [26] for he who wishes to overstep beyond what he is, is proud.[27] We are meant to be children of God, but in our pride, we try to overthrow our Father, which in turn destroys our very inheritance to greatness, thus ending in self-destructing nihilism. Never suffer pride to reign in thy mind, or in thy words: for from it all perdition took its beginning.[28]
      If we want to know how to discern between good and evil, trust and respect in the Lord. Indeed, fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. [29] If you want to know the morality of your actions, look at their fruits. But first consider the fruits of what you faith asks you. Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls. [30] Our faith has had the same moral code for over two thousand years, and for those who have abided by it, they have been made saints and martyrs to our faith. What has our culture given us? When we look at the world, we see fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like. I warn you…that those who such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. [31] But for those who have tried the ways of the Lord, their lives have been recorded as examples of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control…and those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. [32] All of us are tempted by the evil one, and indeed, there are two desires within each of us, one for the good and one for the bad.[33] In this season of Lent, let us make sure that we pray so that we might be aware of our sin, be truly contrite for them, and ready to confess them so that at the dawning of the Easter sun, we may stand before God and claim total love for him who died and rose for us.

[1]Cf. Psalm 32.5: “I acknowledged my sin unto thee, and mine iniquity I have not hid. I said, I will confess my transgressions unto the Lord; and thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin.”
[2] Cf. Matthew 25.40, 45
[3] Cf. Matthew 18.21-35
[4] Romans 10.9
[5] Matthew 10.32
[6] Psalm 51.6
[7] Catechism of the Catholic Church §1441: Only God forgives sins (cf Mark 2.7). Since he is the Son of God, Jesus says of himself, "The Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins" and exercises this divine power: "Your sins are forgiven" (Mark 2.5; Luke 7.48). Further, by virtue of his divine authority he gives this power to men to exercise in his name (Cf. John 21.23).”
[8] Leviticus 5.5-6; SEE ALSO Leviticus 26.40, Numbers 5.7
[9] John 1.29
[10] John 20.22-23
[11] Catechism of the Catholic Church §1444
[12] Matthew 16.19
[13] James 5.16
[14] The Shepherd of Hermas (circa 1st century AD): Book III, Fifth Similitude, ch. 1: “While fasting and sitting on a certain mountain, and giving thanks to the Lord for all His dealings with me, I see the Shepherd sitting down beside me, and saying, "Why have you come hither [so] early in the morning?" "Because, sir," I answered, "I have a station." "What is a station?" he asked. "I am fasting, sir," I replied. "What is this fasting," he continued, "which you are observing?" "As I have been accustomed, sir," I reply, "so I fast." "You do not know," he says, "how to fast unto the Lord: this useless fasting which you observe to Him is of no value." "Why, sir," I answered, "do you say this?" "I say to you," he continued, "that the fasting which you think you observe is not a fasting. But I will teach you what is a full and acceptable fasting to the Lord. Listen," he continued: "God does not desire such an empty fasting. For fasting to God in this way you will do nothing for a righteous life; but offer to God a fasting of the following kind: Do no evil in your life, and serve the Lord with a pure heart: keep His commandments, walking in His precepts, and let no evil desire arise in your heart; and believe in God. If you do these things, and fear Him, and abstain from every evil thing, you will live unto God; and if you do these things, you will keep a great fast, and one acceptable before God."
[15] Cf. Psalm 51.19
[16] Saint John Cassian, Conferences V: On the Eight Principal Faults: “Chapter 6: On the manner of temptation in which our Lord was attacked by the Devil” //“For it was gluttony through which he took the fruit of the forbidden tree, vainglory through which it was said "Your eyes shall be opened," and pride through which it was said "You shall be as gods, knowing good and evil." (Genesis 3:5) With these three sins then we read that the Lord our Saviour was also tempted; with gluttony when the devil said to Him: "Command these stones that they be made bread:" with vainglory: "If You are the Son of God cast Yourself down:" with pride, when he showed him all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them and said: "All this will I give to You if You will fall down and worship me:" in order that He might by His example teach us how we ought to vanquish the tempter when we are attacked on the same lines of temptation as He was.”
[17] Psalm 91.11-12
[18] Genesis 3.3
[19] Genesis 2.17
[20] Cf. Psalm 16.1
[21] Cf. Psalm 2.6-9
[22] Deuteronomy 6.16
[23] II Timothy 3.16
[24] II Peter 1.21
[25] I Timothy 3.15
[26] Isidore, Etym. 10
[27] Saint Thomas of Aquinas, Summa Theologia, II-II, Q162, a1
[28] Tobit 4.14
[29] Proverbs 1.7
[30] Jeremiah 6.16
[31] Galatians 5.19-21
[32] Galatians 5.22-24
[33] Shepherd of Hermas, Book II, Sixth Commandment, ch. 2: “And I said to him, "How, sir, am I to know the powers of these, for both angels dwell with me?" "Hear," said he, and "understand them. The angel of righteousness is gentle and modest, meek and peaceful. When, therefore, he ascends into your heart, forthwith he talks to you of righteousness, purity, chastity, contentment, and of every righteous deed and glorious virtue. When all these ascend into your heart, know that the angel of righteousness is with you. These are the deeds of the angel of righteousness. Trust him, then, and his works. Look now at the works of the angel of iniquity. First, he is wrathful, and bitter, and foolish, and his works are evil, and ruin the servants of God. When, then, he ascends into your heart, know him by his works." And I said to him, "How, sir, I shall perceive him, I do not know." "Hear and understand" said he. "When anger comes upon you, or harshness, know that he is in you; and you will know this to be the case also, when you are attacked by a longing after many transactions, and the richest delicacies, and drunken revels, and various luxuries, and things improper, and by a hankering after women, and by overreaching, and pride, and blustering, and by whatever is like to these. When these ascend into your heart, know that the angel of iniquity is in you.”

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