Homily: The Raising of Lazarus

The Raising of Lazarus - YouTube

5th Sunday in Lent (Year A)
Ezekiel 37:12-14
Psalm 130:1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 7-8
Romans 8:8-11
John 11:1-45

The readings today all revolve around the theme of death and resurrection, quite fitting given that next Sunday we have Palm Sunday of the Passion of our Lord. Additionally, there’s been a trajectory of our readings over this Lenten season.

The first Sunday of Lent we had the temptations in the desert, as Jesus purified his humanity to rely on God alone for his mission. He would accomplish what he came to, by the will and power of the Father, despite all temptations. Likewise, he gave us the model for resisting temptations: to apply the wisdom of the holy scriptures, and disciplining ourselves against the three-fold concupiscence of lust of the eyes, lust of the flesh, and pride.

The second Sunday of Lent we had the Transfiguration, the revelation of Jesus’ divinity and his fulfillment of the Old Testament law and prophets, and assuring his followers that despite appearances, we are to listen to him and trust that everything is happening according to God’s plan, including the betrayal and passion.

The third Sunday of Lent we had the Samaritan woman at the well, and the desire of Jesus to unite himself intimately with his people, both Jews and gentiles, into a new covenant of living water and spirit and life.

Then last week, the fourth Sunday of Lent, we had the healing of the man born blind, the reading that began with the question of whose sin caused the man to be born blind, and Jesus’ answer that it was not any personal sin that caused it, but that through it, God may be glorified, and Jesus may reveal his glory.

Today, the fifth Sunday of Lent, our gospel reading is Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. The raising of Lazarus leads directly to the pharisees plotting to kill Jesus, then the anointing of Jesus by Lazarus’ sister, Mary, and then the Palm Sunday entry into Jerusalem, which is our reading for next Sunday.

The first reading for today is from of the Old Testament story of the valley of dry bones. Israel is in their Babylonian exile, and God shows the prophet Ezekiel this valley of lifeless bones, and God instructs Ezekiel: “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them: Dry bones, hear the word of the LORD!” so the bones start rattling and coming together, and forming skeletons, then sinews and flesh form on the bones, yet without life. So then God tells Ezekiel, “Say to the breath: ‘Thus says the Lord GOD: From the four winds come, O breath, and breathe into these slain that they may come to life.’ I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath entered them; they came to life and stood on their feet; [then] He said to me: ‘…these bones are the whole house of Israel! They are saying, “Our bones are dried up, our hope is lost, and we are cut off.” Then our first reading is God’s response: “O my people, I will open your graves and have you rise from them and bring you back to the land of Israel… O my people! I will put my spirit in you that you may live… thus you shall know that I am the LORD.” If that sounds a bit familiar, we use it in the thirteenth station of the cross. Israel is dead in their sin, convicted of their corruption, and sentenced with exile from their land and separation from God’s presence in his holy temple. In this prophecy, God is promising that Israel will be brought to life again, and more gloriously than before, and when it happens, they will respond in joyful faith. While they were joyful when they were freed from Babylon to return to and rebuild Jerusalem, the prophecy is fulfilled in Christ, who gives the people of God the Holy Spirit, the wellspring of living water within them.

In our Gospel reading, Jesus gives the last of his signs before his passion: he performs the divine action of raising the dead to life. Of course, this event isn’t the fullness of the resurrection in Christ. Whatever might be different in the new life Lazarus has received, he again will still die another mortal death. But the point is that only God can raise from the dead. This sign that Jesus is God will bring many to believe in him, and follow him to Jerusalem, to witness his death, and believe in his resurrection, which is foreshadowed by his raising of Lazarus.

There’s something relevant to today’s situation at the beginning of our gospel. Jesus knows Lazarus is about to die, and he chooses to delay his return, as it says, out of love for Lazarus. That’s super interesting. Why does Jesus do that? Well, it’s one thing for Jesus to heal a sick person. But it’s a much greater thing for Jesus to raise a dead person. He’s going to give Lazarus the honor of being the beneficiary of his greatest sign, which is going to lead to a great increase of faith. I know many of us are getting a bit weary of being separated from Jesus in the sacraments and the church. But perhaps this is a parallel—that Jesus is delaying our reunion with him as an instrument of a great increase of faith, and he will bring the dead back to life! So we trust in Jesus, and we wait for him with hearts expanded in faith.

Jesus wept - WikipediaThe second thing to point out in this delay, is that he knew Lazarus was very ill and going to die. He knew it would cause great anguish and suffering to Mary and Martha. They both lamented that if Jesus had been there, Lazarus wouldn’t have died. But Jesus chose to allow all that to happen. Jesus didn’t kill Lazarus, nor was Mary and Martha’s suffering assigned to them as punishment for something they did. In fact, Jesus shared in their suffering. In English, it’s the shortest verse in the bible: “Jesus wept.” There’s a lot going on in those two words. He is close to the brokenhearted. He is God who is compassion, love, and mercy. He is God who grieves our separation from him more than we do.

But what if Martha and Mary found out at that moment that Jesus deliberately delayed returning until after Lazarus’ death? I think they might be a bit confused, a bit angry maybe. But at that moment, they didn’t know the plan. We struggle when we’re stuck part-way through the plan, and we don’t know where God is leading. But if we persevere in faith, the road of suffering leads to resurrection. The promised land is worth the wilderness.

Martha, ever the more active of the two sisters, rushed out to meet Jesus, and in their dialogue, she makes a confession of faith rivaling the greatness of Peter and Thomas. “She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.’” Then we have one of the “I AM” statements of Jesus, where he uses that divine name, I AM, and reveals part of the mystery of his identity, his mission, and his power. “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” As Saint John wrote his gospel to his community suffering persecution and martyrdom, no doubt this was a message of great consolation and confidence, allowing them to bravely profess their faith during their suffering.  

Ending with this, this assurance of death leading to eternal life is the message of our second reading, from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans. “Brothers and sisters: Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. But you are not in the flesh; on the contrary, you are in the spirit, if only the Spirit of God dwells in you.” There’s that fulfillment of the prophecy from first reading. The Spirit of God dwells in us. We put our old selves to death in the sacrament of baptism, and rise to the life of the Spirit dwelling within us. So we do not live to serve our fallen desires, we are redeemed from our slavery to mammon, and now belong to Jesus, our redeemer. We are not of the flesh, we are of the spirit. “If the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also, through his Spirit dwelling in you.” And this is the point of all our readings: that Lazarus is our assurance, our sign, we have the promise that if we deny ourselves, pick up our crosses, and follow him, we will share in the resurrection of Christ, and live forever in the pure light of his divine glory.

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C. S. Lewis – The Weight of Glory

The book “The Weight of Glory,” was published in 1941, containing nine sermons and addresses delivered by Lewis during World War II, including “Transposition,” “On Forgiveness,” “Why I Am Not a Pacifist,” “Learning in War-Time,” and his most famous, “The Weight of Glory.” This text is widely available online. But so that I am not dependent on any of those sites maintaining their pages, I have added another page here. The blue text is what I highlighted when I originally read it. The red text is the substance of what is usually being spoken of when anyone makes reference to “the weight of glory.” 

The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses : C. S. Lewis : 9780684823843

If you asked twenty good men today what they thought the highest of the virtues, nineteen of them would reply, Unselfishness. But if you had asked almost any of the great Christians of old, he would have replied, Love. You see what has happened? A negative term has been substituted for a positive, and this is of more than philological importance. The negative idea of Unselfishness carries with it the suggestion not primarily of securing good things for others, but of going without them ourselves, as if our abstinence and not their happiness was the important point. I do not think this is the Christian virtue of Love. The New Testament has lots to say about self-denial, but not about self-denial as an end in itself. We are told to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses in order that we may follow Christ; and nearly every description of what we shall ultimately find if we do so contains an appeal to desire. If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith. Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

We must not be troubled by unbelievers when they say that this promise of reward makes the Christian life a mercenary affair. There are different kinds of rewards. There is the reward which has no natural connection with the things you do to earn it and is quite foreign to the desires that ought to accompany those things. Money is not the natural reward of love; that is why we call a man mercenary if he marries a woman for the sake of her money. But marriage is the proper reward for a real lover, and he is not mercenary for desiring it. A general who fights well in order to get a peerage is mercenary; a general who fights for victory is not, victory being the proper reward of battle as marriage is the proper reward of love. The proper rewards are not simply tacked on to the activity for which they are given, but are the activity itself in consummation. There is also a third case, which is more complicated. An enjoyment of Greek poetry is certainly a proper, and not a mercenary, reward for learning Greek; but only those who have reached the stage of enjoying Greek poetry can tell from their own experience that this is so. The schoolboy beginning Greek grammar cannot look forward to his adult enjoyment of Sophocles as a lover looks forward to marriage or a general to victory. He has to begin by working for marks, or to escape punishment, or to please his parents, or, at best, in the hope of a future good which he cannot at present imagine or desire. His position, therefore, bears a certain resemblance to that of the mercenary; the reward he is going to get will, in actual fact, be a natural or proper reward, but he will not know that till he has got it. Of course, he gets it gradually; enjoyment creeps in upon the mere drudgery, and nobody could point to a day or an hour when the one ceased and the other began. But it is just insofar as he approaches the reward that he becomes able to desire it for its own sake; indeed, the power of so desiring it is itself a preliminary reward.

The Christian, in relation to heaven, is in much the same position as this schoolboy. Those who have attained everlasting life in the vision of God doubtless know very well that it is no mere bribe, but the very consummation of their earthly discipleship; but we who have not yet attained it cannot know this in the same way, and cannot even begin to know it at all except by continuing to obey and finding the first reward of our obedience in our increasing power to desire the ultimate reward. Just in proportion as the desire grows, our fear lest it should be a mercenary desire will die away and finally be recognized as an absurdity. But probably this will not, for most of us, happen in a day; poetry replaces grammar, gospel replaces law, longing transforms obedience, as gradually as the tide lifts a grounded ship.

But there is one other important similarity between the schoolboy and ourselves. If he is an imaginative boy, he will, quite probably, be reveling in the English poets and romancers suitable to his age some time before he begins to suspect that Greek grammar is going to lead him to more and more enjoyments of this same sort. He may even be neglecting his Greek to read Shelley and Swinburne in secret. In other words, the desire which Greek is really going to gratify already exists in him and is attached to objects which seem to him quite unconnected with Xenophon and the verbs in μι. Now, if we are made for heaven, the desire for our proper place will be already in us, but not yet attached to the true object, and will even appear as the rival of that object. And this, I think, is just what we find. No doubt there is one point in which my analogy of the schoolboy breaks down. The English poetry which he reads when he ought to be doing Greek exercises may be just as good as the Greek poetry to which the exercises are leading him, so that in fixing on Milton instead of journeying on to Aeschylus his desire is not embracing a false object. But our case is very different. If a transtemporal, transfinite good is our real destiny, then any other good on which our desire fixes must be in some degree fallacious, must bear at best only a symbolical relation to what will truly satisfy.

In speaking of this desire for our own far-off country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name. Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter. Wordsworth’s expedient was to identify it with certain moments in his own past. But all this is a cheat. If Wordsworth had gone back to those moments in the past, he would not have found the thing itself, but only the reminder of it; what he remembered would turn out to be itself a remembering. The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited. Do you think I am trying to weave a spell? Perhaps I am; but remember your fairy tales. Spells are used for breaking enchantments as well as for inducing them. And you and I have need of the strongest spell that can be found to wake us from the evil enchantment of worldliness which has been laid upon us for nearly a hundred years. Almost our whole education has been directed to silencing this shy, persistent, inner voice; almost all our modern philosophies have been devised to convince us that the good of man is to be found on this earth. And yet it is a remarkable thing that such philosophies of Progress or Creative Evolution themselves bear reluctant witness to the truth that our real goal is elsewhere. When they want to convince you that earth is your home, notice how they set about it. They begin by trying to persuade you that earth can be made into heaven, thus giving a sop to your sense of exile in earth as it is. Next, they tell you that this fortunate event is still a good way off in the future, thus giving a sop to your knowledge that the fatherland is not here and now. Finally, lest your longing for the transtemporal should awake and spoil the whole affair, they use any rhetoric that comes to hand to keep out of your mind the recollection that even if all the happiness they promised could come to man on earth, yet still each generation would lose it by death, including the last generation of all, and the whole story would be nothing, not even a story, for ever and ever. Hence all the nonsense that Mr. Shaw puts into the final speech of Lilith, and Bergson’s remark that the élan vital is capable of surmounting all obstacles, perhaps even death—as if we could believe that any social or biological development on this planet will delay the senility of the sun or reverse the second law of thermodynamics.

Do what they will, then, we remain conscious of a desire which no natural happiness will satisfy. But is there any reason to suppose that reality offers any satisfaction to it? “Nor does the being hungry prove that we have bread.” But I think it may be urged that this misses the point. A man’s physical hunger does not prove that man will get any bread; he may die of starvation on a raft in the Atlantic. But surely a man’s hunger does prove that he comes of a race which repairs its body by eating and inhabits a world where eatable substances exist. In the same way, though I do not believe (I wish I did) that my desire for Paradise proves that I shall enjoy it, I think it a pretty good indication that such a thing exists and that some men will. A man may love a woman and not win her; but it would be very odd if the phenomenon called “falling in love” occurred in a sexless world.

Here, then, is the desire, still wandering and uncertain of its object and still largely unable to see that object in the direction where it really lies. Our sacred books give us some account of the object. It is, of course, a symbolical account. Heaven is, by definition, outside our experience, but all intelligible descriptions must be of things within our experience. The scriptural picture of heaven is therefore just as symbolical as the picture which our desire, unaided, invents for itself; heaven is not really full of jewelry any more than it is really the beauty of Nature, or a fine piece of music. The difference is that the scriptural imagery has authority. It comes to us from writers who were closer to God than we, and it has stood the test of Christian experience down the centuries. The natural appeal of this authoritative imagery is to me, at first, very small. At first sight it chills, rather than awakes, my desire. And that is just what I ought to expect. If Christianity could tell me no more of the far-off land than my own temperament led me to surmise already, then Christianity would be no higher than myself. If it has more to give me, I expect it to be less immediately attractive than “my own stuff.” Sophocles at first seems dull and cold to the boy who has only reached Shelley. If our religion is something objective, then we must never avert our eyes from those elements in it which seem puzzling or repellent; for it will be precisely the puzzling or the repellent which conceals what we do not yet know and need to know.

The promises of Scripture may very roughly be reduced to five heads. It is promised (1) that we shall be with Christ; (2) that we shall be like Him; (3) with an enormous wealth of imagery, that we shall have “glory”; (4) that we shall, in some sense, be fed or feasted or entertained; and (5) that we shall have some sort of official position in the universe—ruling cities, judging angels, being pillars of God’s temple. The first question I ask about these promises is “Why any one of them except the first?” Can anything be added to the conception of being with Christ? For it must be true, as an old writer says, that he who has God and everything else has no more than he who has God only. I think the answer turns again on the nature of symbols. For though it may escape our notice at first glance, yet it is true that any conception of being with Christ which most of us can now form will be not very much less symbolical than the other promises; for it will smuggle in ideas of proximity in space and loving conversation as we now understand conversation, and it will probably concentrate on the humanity of Christ to the exclusion of His deity. And, in fact, we find that those Christians who attend solely to this first promise always do fill it up with very earthly imagery indeed—in fact, with hymeneal or erotic imagery. I am not for a moment condemning such imagery. I heartily wish I could enter into it more deeply than I do, and pray that I yet shall. But my point is that this also is only a symbol, like the reality in some respects, but unlike it in others, and therefore needs correction from the different symbols in the other promises. The variation of the promises does not mean that anything other than God will be our ultimate bliss; but because God is more than a Person, and lest we should imagine the joy of His presence too exclusively in terms of our present poor experience of personal love, with all its narrowness and strain and monotony, a dozen changing images, correcting and relieving each other, are supplied.

I turn next to the idea of glory. There is no getting away from the fact that this idea is very prominent in the New Testament and in early Christian writings. Salvation is constantly associated with palms, crowns, white robes, thrones, and splendor like the sun and stars. All this makes no immediate appeal to me at all, and in that respect I fancy I am a typical modern. Glory suggests two ideas to me, of which one seems wicked and the other ridiculous. Either glory means to me fame, or it means luminosity. As for the first, since to be famous means to be better known than other people, the desire for fame appears to me as a competitive passion and therefore of hell rather than heaven. As for the second, who wishes to become a kind of living electric light bulb?

When I began to look into this matter I was shocked to find such different Christians as Milton, Johnson, and Thomas Aquinas taking heavenly glory quite frankly in the sense of fame or good report. But not fame conferred by our fellow creatures—fame with God, approval or (I might say) “appreciation” by God. And then, when I had thought it over, I saw that this view was scriptural; nothing can eliminate from the parable the divine accolade, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.” With that, a good deal of what I had been thinking all my life fell down like a house of cards. I suddenly remembered that no one can enter heaven except as a child; and nothing is so obvious in a child—not in a conceited child, but in a good child—as its great and undisguised pleasure in being praised. Not only in a child, either, but even in a dog or a horse. Apparently what I had mistaken for humility had, all these years, prevented me from understanding what is in fact the humblest, the most childlike, the most creaturely of pleasures—nay, the specific pleasure of the inferior: the pleasure of a beast before men, a child before its father, a pupil before his teacher, a creature before its Creator. I am not forgetting how horribly this most innocent desire is parodied in our human ambitions, or how very quickly, in my own experience, the lawful pleasure of praise from those whom it was my duty to please turns into the deadly poison of self-admiration. But I thought I could detect a moment—a very, very short moment—before this happened, during which the satisfaction of having pleased those whom I rightly loved and rightly feared was pure. And that is enough to raise our thoughts to what may happen when the redeemed soul, beyond all hope and nearly beyond belief, learns at last that she has pleased Him whom she was created to please. There will be no room for vanity then. She will be free from the miserable illusion that it is her doing. With no taint of what we should now call self-approval she will most innocently rejoice in the thing that God has made her to be, and the moment which heals her old inferiority complex forever will also drown her pride deeper than Prospero’s book. Perfect humility dispenses with modesty. If God is satisfied with the work, the work may be satisfied with itself; “it is not for her to bandy compliments with her Sovereign.” I can imagine someone saying that he dislikes my idea of heaven as a place where we are patted on the back. But proud misunderstanding is behind that dislike. In the end that Face which is the delight or the terror of the universe must be turned upon each of us either with one expression or with the other, either conferring glory inexpressible or inflicting shame that can never be cured or disguised. I read in a periodical the other day that the fundamental thing is how we think of God. By God Himself, it is not! How God thinks of us is not only more important, but infinitely more important. Indeed, how we think of Him is of no importance except insofar as it is related to how He thinks of us. It is written that we shall “stand before” Him, shall appear, shall be inspected. The promise of glory is the promise, almost incredible and only possible by the work of Christ, that some of us, that any of us who really chooses, shall actually survive that examination, shall find approval, shall please God. To please God…to be a real ingredient in the divine happiness…to be loved by God, not merely pitied, but delighted in as an artist delights in his work or a son—it seems impossible, a weight or burden of glory which our thoughts can hardly sustain. But so it is.

And now notice what is happening. If I had rejected the authoritative and scriptural image of glory and stuck obstinately to the vague desire which was, at the outset, my only pointer to heaven, I could have seen no connection at all between that desire and the Christian promise. But now, having followed up what seemed puzzling and repellent in the sacred books, I find, to my great surprise, looking back, that the connection is perfectly clear. Glory, as Christianity teaches me to hope for it, turns out to satisfy my original desire and indeed to reveal an element in that desire which I had not noticed. By ceasing for a moment to consider my own wants I have begun to learn better what I really wanted. When I attempted, a few minutes ago, to describe our spiritual longings, I was omitting one of their most curious characteristics. We usually notice it just as the moment of vision dies away, as the music ends, or as the landscape loses the celestial light. What we feel then has been well described by Keats as “the journey homeward to habitual self.” You know what I mean. For a few minutes we have had the illusion of belonging to that world. Now we wake to find that it is no such thing. We have been mere spectators. Beauty has smiled, but not to welcome us; her face was turned in our direction, but not to see us. We have not been accepted, welcomed, or taken into the dance. We may go when we please, we may stay if we can: “Nobody marks us.” A scientist may reply that since most of the things we call beautiful are inanimate, it is not very surprising that they take no notice of us. That, of course, is true. It is not the physical objects that I am speaking of, but that indescribable something of which they become for a moment the messengers. And part of the bitterness which mixes with the sweetness of that message is due to the fact that it so seldom seems to be a message intended for us, but rather something we have overheard. By bitterness I mean pain, not resentment. We should hardly dare to ask that any notice be taken of ourselves. But we pine. The sense that in this universe we are treated as strangers, the longing to be acknowledged, to meet with some response, to bridge some chasm that yawns between us and reality, is part of our inconsolable secret. And surely, from this point of view, the promise of glory, in the sense described, becomes highly relevant to our deep desire. For glory means good report with God, acceptance by God, response, acknowledgement, and welcome into the heart of things. The door on which we have been knocking all our lives will open at last.

Perhaps it seems rather crude to describe glory as the fact of being “noticed” by God. But this is almost the language of the New Testament. St. Paul promises to those who love God not, as we should expect, that they will know Him, but that they will be known by Him (1 Cor. 8:3). It is a strange promise. Does not God know all things at all times? But it is dreadfully reechoed in another passage of the New Testament. There we are warned that it may happen to anyone of us to appear at last before the face of God and hear only the appalling words, “I never knew you. Depart from Me.” In some sense, as dark to the intellect as it is unendurable to the feelings, we can be both banished from the presence of Him who is present everywhere and erased from the knowledge of Him who knows all. We can be left utterly and absolutely outside—repelled, exiled, estranged, finally and unspeakably ignored. On the other hand, we can be called in, welcomed, received, acknowledged. We walk every day on the razor edge between these two incredible possibilities. Apparently, then, our lifelong nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off, to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside, is no mere neurotic fancy, but the truest index of our real situation. And to be at last summoned inside would be both glory and honor beyond all our merits and also the healing of that old ache.

And this brings me to the other sense of glory— glory as brightness, splendor, luminosity. We are to shine as the sun, we are to be given the Morning Star. I think I begin to see what it means. In one way, of course, God has given us the Morning Star already: you can go and enjoy the gift on many fine mornings if you get up early enough. What more, you may ask, do we want? Ah, but we want so much more—something the books on aesthetics take little notice of. But the poets and the mythologies know all about it. We do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words—to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it. That is why we have peopled air and earth and water with gods and goddesses and nymphs and elves—that, though we cannot, yet these projections can enjoy in themselves that beauty, grace, and power of which Nature is the image. That is why the poets tell us such lovely falsehoods. They talk as if the west wind could really sweep into a human soul; but it can’t. They tell us that “beauty born of murmuring sound” will pass into a human face; but it won’t. Or not yet. For if we take the imagery of Scripture seriously, if we believe that God will one day give us the Morning Star and cause us to put on the splendor of the sun, then we may surmise that both the ancient myths and the modern poetry, so false as history, may be very near the truth as prophecy. At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendors we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumor that it will not always be so. Some day, God willing, we shall get in. When human souls have become as perfect in voluntary obedience as the inanimate creation is in its lifeless obedience, then they will put on its glory, or rather that greater glory of which Nature is only the first sketch. For you must not think that I am putting forward any heathen fancy of being absorbed into Nature. Nature is mortal; we shall outlive her. When all the suns and nebulae have passed away, each one of you will still be alive. Nature is only the image, the symbol; but it is the symbol Scripture invites me to use. We are summoned to pass in through Nature, beyond her, into that splendor which she fitfully reflects.

And in there, in beyond Nature, we shall eat of the tree of life. At present, if we are reborn in Christ, the spirit in us lives directly on God; but the mind and, still more, the body receives life from Him at a thousand removes—through our ancestors, through our food, through the elements. The faint, far-off results of those energies which God’s creative rapture implanted in matter when He made the worlds are what we now call physical pleasures; and even thus filtered, they are too much for our present management. What would it be to taste at the fountainhead that stream of which even these lower reaches prove so intoxicating? Yet that, I believe, is what lies before us. The whole man is to drink joy from the fountain of joy. As St. Augustine said, the rapture of the saved soul will “flow over” into the glorified body. In the light of our present specialized and depraved appetites, we cannot imagine this torrens voluptatis, and I warn everyone most seriously not to try. But it must be mentioned, to drive out thoughts even more misleading—thoughts that what is saved is a mere ghost, or that the risen body lives in numb insensibility. The body was made for the Lord, and these dismal fancies are wide of the mark.

Meanwhile the cross comes before the crown and tomorrow is a Monday morning. A cleft has opened in the pitiless walls of the world, and we are invited to follow our great Captain inside. The following Him is, of course, the essential point. That being so, it may be asked what practical use there is in the speculations which I have been indulging. I can think of at least one such use. It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbor. The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbor’s glory should be laid on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously—no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be a real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner—no mere tolerance, or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses. If he is your Christian neighbor, he is holy in almost the same way, for in him also Christ vere latitat—the glorifier and the glorified, Glory Himself, is truly hidden. 

Homily: The Man Born Blind

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The Fourth Sunday of Lent (Year A) Laetare Sunday

1 Samuel 16: 1b, 6-7,10-13a
Psalm 23:1-3a, 3b-4,5,6
Ephesians 5:8-14
John 9:1-41

Continuing the pattern of having long gospel readings for Lent, we have a long gospel reading today. I know there’s an option for a shorter reading. But I prefer the longer option. It’s more important for you to hear the word of God, rather than just my commentary about it. It’s the Word himself, Jesus, who is the way, the truth, the life. I just try to help us to match it up with our own lives and experience. With such an extended reading, we’ll just take a look at the general themes that we’re being given by the church, in this choice of readings for the 4th Sunday of Lent.

This is the fourth Sunday of Lent, so it is Laetare Sunday! Laetare is the Latin for Rejoice! from the first word of the Entrance Antiphon in Latin…

Latin: Lætare Jerusalem: et conventum facite omnes qui diligitis eam: gaudete cum lætitia, qui in tristitia fuistis: ut exsultetis, et satiemini ab uberibus consolationis vestræ.

English: Rejoice, Jerusalem, and all who love her. Be joyful, all who were in mourning; exult and be satisfied at her consoling breast.

Image result for laetare jerusalemWhy are we called to rejoice? Because the season of Lent points us to the celebration of the Lord’s redemptive passion and glorious resurrection! And today, we’re half way there! Also, it is to remind us that even in Lenten sacrifices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving—and even in the suffering from our current quarantine situation—we are called to give thanks to God in every circumstance (1 Thess 5:18), and that it is right to lift up our hearts to the Lord, to give him thanks and praise, always and everywhere.

The first theme we’ll look at together is the opening question of our gospel reading. Jesus and his disciples saw a blind man, and they asked Jesus, “who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither he nor his parents sinned; it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him.” This is important and comes back later in the reading, because the pharisees say the same thing: he was blind because he was born in sin. The faithful are always faced with an apparent paradox: if God is all loving, and all powerful, why is there evil and suffering? The Church in her wisdom, has something of an answer to this question. God doesn’t will evil and suffering. And he most often doesn’t overpower the laws of nature with a supernatural act that removes evil and healing. But because, in his perfection, he knows that particular evil and suffering will happen, his plan accommodates the evil and suffering, if they are responded to in a holy, faithful way, to lead to greater holiness and faith (conversely, if someone reacts with weak faith, he may reject the opportunity to grow, and reject faith; so perhaps this is an example of Jesus words, “For to him who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away“). God knows that suffering can be good, in that it often has the effect of stripping away our distractions, and focusing us on what is truly important, what truly matters and endures. So this man in the gospel isn’t blind because it’s punishment for sins. He’s blind because that’s what happened naturally, but God is going to use it for an increase of holiness and faith.

The second theme follows right after that: the contrast between light and dark. This is a contrast that appears all over the gospel of John, right from the first words: “Through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race; the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (Jn 1:4-5). Jesus says in our gospel reading, “We have to do the works of the one who sent me while it is day. Night is coming when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” This ties into our second reading from St. Paul: “You were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light… Take no part in the fruitless works of darkness,” and then Paul quotes what is probably a hymn at the time, based on Isaiah, “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.” As we talked about a few weeks ago, after Jesus identifies himself as the Light of the World, he will also tells his followers that we are the light of the world, and we are to let his light shine out through us, for others to see him, that they might give glory to God and be healed and saved by him.

The third theme is the healing miracle itself. This is a strange thing Jesus does to heal this man. He doesn’t just say, “be healed.” Jesus “spat on the ground and made clay with the saliva, and smeared the clay on his eyes, and said to him, ‘Go wash in the Pool of Siloam’… So, he went and washed, and came back able to see.” There was a tradition in Israel (especially in the Essene community, which seemed to have had a strong influence on John the Baptist and Jesus) that in the Creation in the Old Testament book of Genesis, when God formed Adam from the dust, God used his own spit (in some mysterious way), to make the clay from which he formed Adam. And that’s key, because that’s what Jesus is doing: he’s repeating the act of creation, creating anew this blind man’s eyes, anointing and healing his vision. So we have Jesus being clearly presented as performing a divine action. And it hearkens to Jesus’ mission: to recreate, to restore the world, to make all things new in Himself. Jesus told the man then to wash in the “Pool of Siloam,” which was fed from the Gihon River, which was named after one of the four rivers in the garden of Eden.

And throughout the gospel reading, we have this progression of faith from the man born blind. First he calls Jesus a man, then he calls Jesus a prophet. In his exchange with the Pharisees, he defends Jesus as a man sent from God. Then in his exchange at the end, he says to Jesus, “Lord, I believe,” and worships him. Of course, worship belongs to the Lord God alone.

And finally, the fourth theme I want to bring out, the exchange at the end of the reading between Jesus and the pharisees. Jesus declares, “I came into this world… so that those who do not see might see, and those who do see might become blind.’ Some of the Pharisees who were with him heard this and said to him, ‘Surely we are not also blind, are we?’ Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now you are saying, ‘We see,’ so your sin remains.’

This is ironic response is similar to another response from Jesus to the pharisees, “Those who are healthy do not need a physician, but the sick do. I have not come to call the righteous to repentance, but sinners.” Jesus is saying that the Pharisees are just as much sinners, just as spiritually sick, just as blind, as the people they think of as worse off than themselves. The pharisees think they are not sick, without sin, not blind. But because they fail to see their own sinfulness, they are not open to the forgiveness they need, and so they remain spiritually sick, blind, and sinful. Jesus says he came for judgment, to reveal judgment: The judgment is that those who know they are spiritually sick and blind and ask for healing will receive it. But those who are too prideful to be aware that they are being spiritually sick and blind will not ask for healing, and so they will remain spiritually sick and blind.

And that ties to our first reading, about the anointing of David by Samuel. Samuel had anointed Saul as king, and that had gone badly. So Samuel had it in his mind what the new king should be like. But he was looking with the eyes of fallen humanity, not with the eyes of God. It took God to reveal to Samuel, David as the true king, the one who would be a shepherd after his own heart. And of course, our Psalm was that beautiful and beloved Psalm 23, written by David, the shepherd boy who became the shepherd king: “The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. beside restful waters he leads me; he refreshes my soul

So why these readings for the 4th Sunday of Lent? I mean, they’re great, but why now, in Lent? Because they are chosen to encourage the catechumens of the Church who are preparing for baptism, preparing to be made new, to be re-created by Christ. In the Ancient Church baptism was sometimes called the sacrament of illumination, of receiving the Light of Christ (symbolized by receiving their baptismal candle), and illuminating our lives to be his light in the world, and to see the world by his light, having our vision healed by grace. Like the blind man said, and quoted in the hymn, Amazing Grace, “I once was blind, but now I see.”

According to commentary from Dr. John Bergsma, there is a particular appropriateness, then, of having Psalm 23 in our readings today. In the catechesis of the Church Fathers, Psalm 23 was one of the favorite texts for sacramental instruction, taken as a typology of the sacraments:

(1) “Beside restful waters he leads me, he refreshes my soul” — these are the waters of Baptism, that give us rest from our sins, and “refresh” (better: “restore”) our souls by infusing us with divine life.

(2) “You spread a table before me in the sight of my foes”—this is the altar, the banquet of the Eucharist, which gives us courage and strength in the midst of the persecutions we experience in this life at the hands of our foes—Satan, his demons, and our persecutors.

(3) “You anoint my head with oil”—this is the oil of Confirmation, that strengthens us to give witness (in Greek, “mártyras”, the root of our word, “martyr,” one who witnesses with the full measure of life and death) despite the opposition we encounter from others.

(4) “My cup overflows”—this is the Eucharistic cup, which always overflows with the Holy Spirit, giving us new life.

Lastly, I want to revisit the theme I’ve been trying to get across this whole time we’ve been suffering through the temporary closing of the churches. That with fallen, human eyes focused on the world, we might take pleasure in the lifting of the obligation for Mass, as a relief and a welcome break. But for those with eyes (and heart) healed by grace, we can see this truly as a time to grow in longing for God, longing for the sacraments of the church. Perhaps this is the healing and renewal of love for the sacraments that the church needs right now, that God is providing by bringing good out of suffering. I posted online a quote from the catechism that during the season of Lent, the church unites herself to the mystery of Jesus in the desert, in the arid wilderness, hungry, thirsty, and longing for comfort, as he is prepared during this time to be strengthened, to be focused on his mission, to reaffirm his reliance on God alone. And so we can ask Jesus to unite ourselves to him, and to the man born blind, that we might see by the light of faith; we can ask Jesus that when our exile, our period in the wilderness, is over, that our purification will be profound and enduring, that ever after, we would take no part in the fruitless works of darkness, but to live as children of light in the Lord.

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Homily: The Meeting at the Well


Our newly acquired retired permanent deacon (he retired and moved to the area, and helps out generously!) Deacon Jim had approached me a few weeks ago, and asked if he could preach on the 3rd Sunday of Lent, because he had a homily on the Woman at the Well he wanted to give. I was all to happy to give him the opportunity. He doesn’t preach much anymore, and the people of the parish should hear more from him, and are probably happy to hear less from me once in a while! So this is my homily from the last time these readings came up in the lectionary cycle. God bless, and may it be fruitful!

3rd Sunday in Lent (Year A)
Exodus 17:3-7
Psalm 95:1-2, 6-7, 8-9
Romans 5:1-2, 5-8
John 4:5-42

John Smith was the first non-Catholic to move into a very Catholic neighborhood.  On the Fridays of Lent, John was outside grilling a big juicy steak, while all of his neighbors were eating fish for supper. The men of the neighborhood decided that he was tempting them with his steak each Friday of Lent, and they couldn’t take it anymore, and so they decided to convert John, which they successfully did. As he was baptizing John, the priest said: “You were born a heathen, you were raised a heathen, but now you are a Catholic.” The next year’s Lenten season came around, and on the first Friday of Lent, when the neighborhood was sitting down to their tuna fish dinner, came the wafting smell of steak cooking on a grill. The neighborhood men decided to meet over in John’s yard to see if he had forgotten it was the first Friday of Lent. They arrived just in time to see John standing over his grill with a small pitcher of water, saying, “You were born a cow, you were raised a cow, but now you are a fish.”

The gospel reading for this Sunday is thick and savory, like the smell of a good steak on a grill. There are many layers in this exchange between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well. As usual, as much as I try to lay out before you the rich feast available in the divine word, much of it has to be left out, because there’s just so much that God has prepared for us. 

If you’re a first century Jew encountering this gospel story, you’re going to be struck by some things that we in our modern day aren’t attuned to. For example, the well. In Jewish scripture, when a man is waiting at a well and a woman approaches, there is going to be a nuptial aspect to the event. Many figures in Jewish history—Isaac, Jacob, Moses, all had this theme of the man meeting a woman at a well. But in this case, it’s no ordinary man and no ordinary woman, and so no ordinary nuptial theme.

Second, we have to understand who the Samaritans were. When the Assyrians dispersed the ten northern tribes, they settled the land themselves, and there was a lot of intermarriage between the Israelite Samaritans and the pagan Assyrians. So Samaria became the image of this half-breed, half-Jewish abomination. Their pagan religions eventually gave way to the worship of God, but with their own scriptures, their own priesthood, and their own place of worship (in Gerezim, not in Jerusalem). They worshiped God, but on their own terms, not on God’s terms. So there was this rejection of Samaritans, and when Jesus, a Jew, asks this Samaritan woman for a drink from the well, she’s shocked.

Image result for springs of living waterThird, we have to understand the term, “living water.” The common meaning of “living water” was moving water, like a stream or a spring, water that seemed to have a life of its own, in contrast to the stagnant water of  a pond, or even a well. Jesus offers the woman “living water.” Not just natural water for natural life, but eternal life. She doesn’t quite get it—she wants it so she doesn’t have to come to the well to draw more water. But she asks, so Jesus has the opportunity take her to the next level.

All of a sudden, Jesus moves the topic away from the well, and onto her and her sin. He knows her heart. And she totally changes the subject. We have a hard time grasping what a scandal it would have been for her to be five-time divorced and living presently with a man she’s not married to. She would have been a pariah, shunned. Some have suggested that’s why she’s drawing water at the well alone at noon, and not with the other women.

In the midst of this discussion, she brings up the Messiah. And he identifies himself. “Jesus said to her, ‘I am he, the one speaking with you.’” In the Hebrew, it says, “He who is speaking to you, I AM,” explicitly using the divine name.

Just then the disciples return, and are surprised. Why would the disciples be startled that Jesus is talking to this woman? He talks to women all the time. But Jesus is talking to a woman alone by a well. As we said, that (in the minds of the first century Jews) had nuptial connotations. They get it. It looks like he’s courting a future spouse. Why is he doing that? We’ll come back to that.

The whole thing about food, and sowing and reaping might sound like a tangent, but it’s not. Jesus ties it all together himself, saying, “I tell you, look up and see the fields ripe for the harvest. The reaper is already receiving payment and gathering crops for eternal life, so that the sower and reaper can rejoice together.” It’s a Eucharistic image! He’s referring to the Samaritans. The Jews saw half-Jewish unwashed mongrels, but Jesus sees a field of souls ripe and ready for the harvest, like wheat. The seeds were planted by Moses, Isaac, Jacob, and are now ready to be gathered by the apostles.

So what’s it all about? The image of Jesus as not just the Messiah, the Savior, but Jesus as the Divine Bridegroom who has come in person to wed humanity through the new covenant in his blood. So the woman at the well (for all her sin, yet her thirst for forgiveness, and faith in Christ) is a bride, and Jesus the bridegroom. The Samaritan woman is an image of the Church. She’s both Israelite and pagan, Jews and Gentiles, waiting for a savior to come and save them from their sin, from their adultery and idolatry. Jesus the Bridegroom meets this woman, at a well, offering her living water. Another meaning of “living water” was the ritual cleansing water of the bridal bath. She would wash in “living water,” like a baptism. So when Jesus promises this living water, he is proposing to His Bride, symbolized by the Samaritan woman, washed clean of her sin, without spot or blemish.

Image result for blood and water from jesus sideSo what does that mean for us? When Jesus is pierced on the cross, it’s the living water and blood of the covenant, the life of His Bride, the Church, that flow from his side (which just might be related to Adam having his bride taken from his side; and may also be related to the psalm of life-giving water flowing from the right side of the temple, from the sanctuary…). And when do we individually receive the living waters that wash us clean from our sins? In our baptism. When you get baptized, all the sin and the effects of sin are washed away at that moment of baptism. This reading is preparing catechumens to receive the living water at the celebration of their baptism (and the other sacraments of initiation) at the Easter Vigil.

CCC 1617 beautifully ties this together: baptism, Eucharist, and matrimony: “The entire Christian life bears the mark of the spousal love of Christ and the Church. Already, Baptism, the entry into the People of God, is a nuptial mystery; it is so to speak the nuptial bath which precedes the wedding feast, the Eucharist. Christian marriage in its turn becomes an efficacious sign, the sacrament of the covenant of Christ and the Church. Since it signifies and communicates grace, marriage between baptized persons is a true sacrament of the New Covenant.

Our catechumens are entering into this mystery. At the Easter Vigil, they are going to receive the baptism, the anointing, to enter into the Eucharistic wedding feast as new members of the bride (and of the body of Christ, for in marriage, the two become one).

If you take our first reading and the Psalm, about God providing life-giving water in the desert, and not hardening our heart, and combine it with the Gospel of the woman at the well, it’s about repentance. We want to be like the Samaritan woman, who doesn’t harden her heart. God has the power to make the living water spring from the Rock to wash you of your sin. That’s what he did Good Friday. The Rock is Jesus, the life-giving water springing from the Rock is the covenant, the water and blood that flowed from his side. Now the living water flows to us in baptism, washing us, to be members of His bride, the Church.

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Homily: Jesus’ Triple Temptation

Image result for jesus tempted in the wilderness matthew

1st Sunday in Lent (Year A)
Genesis 2:7-9; 3:1-7
Psalm 51:3-4, 5-6, 12-13, 17
Romans 5:12-19
Matthew 4:1-11

The Lectionary is set up on a 3-year cycle of readings. Each of the three years, we work through a different “Synoptic” Gospel book (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), and each year the first Sunday of Lent features the temptations of Jesus in the desert, from that year’s gospel. Our reading can raise certain questions: Why does Jesus go out into the desert? Why is He there for 40 days? And what is the significance of these three temptations? Are they really temptations for Jesus?

The first two of these we can take care of in quick order. When the scriptures use the number forty, it refers to a period of testing, purification, and preparation. In a similar way, the desert, too, was the place for testing, purification, and preparation. It was a reminder of the years of the Exodus, when Israel was being purified of their wounds of Egyptian slavery and paganism, tested in their obedience and faith in God, His Law, and the Covenant, and prepared to be God’s people and enter into the Promised Land. So Jesus, after his Baptism, was driven by the Spirit into the desert (wilderness), fasting for forty days and forty nights, preparing him for the challenges of his earthly ministry, purifying his will, that he would fully embrace the mission from the Father: to be the Lamb of God, who by his cross and resurrection, would take away the sins of the world.

So why these particular temptations? “If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become loaves of bread.” Jesus was human, and had been fasting for forty days. I’m hungry after forty minutes. Yes, it was a real temptation for Jesus! His natural desire would have been to satisfy his hunger with food. But he responds instead by quoting Isaiah: “It is written: One does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.

Then the devil…made him stand on the parapet of the temple, and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. For it is written: ‘He will command his angels concerning you and with their hands they will support you…” Interestingly the devil quotes from the Scriptures. Also interesting, this is from Psalm 91, which in Jewish tradition, was a deliverance prayer, a psalm of exorcism. So the devil knows the power of this verse. But of course he misuses it, and pulls it out context. So be careful of people who do that, too (the next line in the psalm is about trampling the serpent under foot!).  Jesus is being tempted with pride: show everyone your power, and they will follow you. But Jesus again quotes Isaiah, “You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.” His mission wasn’t to overwhelm the people with his divine power, but to convince them by winning their free choice to follow him, by his miracles, by his parables, by his love for them.

Then the devil…showed him all the kingdoms of the world in their magnificence, and he said to him, ‘All these I shall give to you, if you will prostrate yourself and worship me.” The devil is showing Jesus all the kingdoms—all the souls—of the world. He says, “I will give them to you; all you have to do is worship me.” It’s the temptation to save humanity without the cross. Jesus responds: “Get away, Satan! It is written: ‘The Lord, your God, shall you worship and him alone shall you serve,” again quoting Isaiah. St. Peter will a bit later repeat Satan’s temptation to bypass the cross, and Jesus will rebuke him with a similar response: “Get behind me, Satan.” Jesus will do the Father’s will, in the way the Father wills: he will lay down his life, and show us the depths of divine love.

These three temptations of Jesus are called the “triple concupiscence,” the three primal weaknesses in human nature. The 1st letter of Saint John describes this three-fold disorder: “For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes and pride of life, is not of the Father but is of the world.” And they go back even to Adam and Eve before the Fall, which is our first reading. We can see how the devil tempts Eve toward the forbidden fruit. “The woman saw that the tree was good for food, pleasing to the eyes, and desirable for gaining wisdom.

So first, the “lust of the flesh.” This is the desire for pleasure of the bodily senses, the desire for disordered pleasure, or to pursue pleasure in a disordered way, or to a disordered extent. Eve saw that the fruit was good for food. She wanted to taste it. And Jesus was tempted to turn stones into bread.

Second, the “lust of the eyes.” This is the desire for possession, to want something bad, or to want something in a disordered way, or to a disordered extent . Eve saw that the fruit was “pleasing to the eyes,” and she wanted to have it, even though it was forbidden. Jesus was tempted by the presentation of all the kingdoms of the earth. It could be his, if he would just worship the devil instead of God.

And third, “pride of life.” Eve saw that the fruit was desirable for gaining wisdom (for becoming like God, but apart from God), and Jesus was tempted to exercise power in human terms, overpowering our human freedom to choose to have faith.

Any temptation we endure, or sin we commit, is one of these three areas of temptation: pleasure, possession, or pride. The triple concupiscence. I’ve used this image before, connecting the triple concupiscence with the seven capital vices:

Triple Concupiscence and Vices


The Catechism (540) tells us, “By the solemn forty days of Lent the Church unites herself each year to the mystery of Jesus in the desert.” How do we do that during Lent? Well, on Ash Wednesday, the gospel reading was Jesus’ teaching on Prayer, Fasting, and Almsgiving.

Jesus calls us to fast — to strengthen our will’s power over our bodily appetites — in order to overcome our disordered desire for pleasure.

He calls us give alms, to the poor, to the church — to free ourselves from affection for our possessions, or marks of social status, and their tendency to rule over us — in order to overcome our disordered desire of possession.

And he calls us to pray — humility is the antidote to pride. When we pray, we acknowledge that God is God and we are not; we are dust and to dust we will return.

So we can unite ourselves to the mystery of Jesus in the desert… and on the cross! It’s ultimately on the cross that Jesus completely defeats these three temptations (1) his lack of pleasure, in the physical pain, thirst, and agony of the crucifixion (2) his lack of possessions, crucified naked, and even giving away his mother to the blessed disciple; (3) and his definitive defeat of pride, in the humiliations of crucifixion, exacerbated by the mocking of his persecutors. Exercising our penitential practices of Lent, we will be able to resist these three primal temptations of the devil, and of the world.

The theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity (love) also relate to the triple concupiscence. Hope requires that we trust in the Lord’s Promises if we conform ourselves to His Truth (overcoming the lust of the flesh, our pleasures). Charity requires that we selflessly give in love of our neighbor, especially the poor (overcoming the lust of the eyes, our possessions). Faith requires that we put God, and our relationship with Him, first above all (overcoming our pride).

Also, now that I think of it, we are called to deny ourselves (pleasure), pick up our cross (possession), and follow Him (pride). I’m sure many other sets of three like these could be part of the divine teaching for overcoming the triple concupiscence, the three-fold weakness of human nature.  

As Jesus went into the desert to recapitulate (and redeem) Israel’s 40 years in the desert, we can participate in it, through Jesus, as well. We, too, are being purified of our wounds of slavery and false beliefs, tested in our obedience and faith in God, His Law, and the Covenant, and prepared to be God’s people and enter into the Promised Land of Heaven.

In Greek mythology, creatures called the Sirens lived on an island and, with the irresistible spell of their song, they lured sailors to their destruction on the rocks surrounding their island. When Odysseus, the hero of Homer’s Odyssey, was sailing past that place, he put wax in the ears of his sailors, so that they might not hear the sirens’ singing. But King Tharsius, who also made the journey, chose a better way. He took along with him the great musician Orpheus. Orpheus sang a song so beautiful that it drowned out the sound of the lovely, fatal voices of the sirens. The best way to break the charm of this world’s alluring voices is not trying to shut out the world, but to have our hearts and lives filled with the sweeter music of faith, hope, and love: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. When we are enthralled by our love and desire for heaven, then the alluring voices of the lesser things of this world —pleasure, possession, and pride—will be powerless over us.

The Prayer after Communion

Renewed now with heavenly bread,
by which faith is nourished, hope increased,
and charity strengthened, (a reference to the theological virtues)
we pray, O Lord,
that we may learn to hunger for Christ,
the true and living Bread,
and strive to live by every word
which proceeds from your mouth. (a reference to the first temptation, and Jesus’ response)
Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

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