Sunday, February 22, 2015

Temptation in the Desert

                                    1st Sunday of Lent
                                 

                                   
                                
Ever since the Second Vatican Council the Church has employed a three-year cycle of readings in the Liturgy. The cycles are simply labeled A, B, and C. In the A cycle the gospel readings are usually taken from the gospel of St. Matthew. The B cycle features the gospel of St. Mark, and the C cycle the gospel of St. Luke. However, the Church has always used the account of the Temptation of Christ in the desert for the first Sunday in Lent.

It might seem odd then that today’s first reading from the Book of Genesis is about Noah and the Flood. What does Noah have to do with the Temptation of Jesus in the desert by Satan? St. Peter provides the answer in today’s second reading. He says that the Flood prefigures or relates to Baptism. Just as the Ark saved Noah and his small family, St. Peter reminds the Christian community that Baptism saves us now. Moreover, he says that the cleansing waters of Baptism are not a “mere removal of dirt from the body but an appeal to God for a clear conscience.”

The cleansing of our hearts and souls is also associated with the season of Lent. It is the real reason for Lent, and this is why the Church always presents us with the story of the Temptation in the Desert on the first Sunday in Lent. St. Mark only has the following to day about the Temptation.

The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert,
And he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan.

In Mark’s gospel the forty days in the desert followed immediately after the Baptism of Jesus when the Spirit descended upon him at the river Jordan. Following his own Baptism Jesus sees the need to prepare for his mission with prayer and fasting. It will not be easy and he will have to struggle against temptation.

Mark’s gospel does not go into detail about the kinds of temptation faced by Jesus. For that, we have to turn to the account in the gospel of Matthew who says that the devil presented Jesus with three different temptations. Lucky for us that we are such small fry or such easy marks that the devil doesn't have to personally bother with us. Our temptations are not so dramatic. C. S. Lewis, one of the greatest Christian authors of the last century, wrote a book entitled "The Screwtape Letters" in which he described how a petty bureaucrat from Hell tried to tempt a young man with the mundane, ordinary temptations that we all experience in our lives.

Nevertheless, the Devil tempted Jesus in ways that we all can understand. Please note however that despite all attempts today to glamorize the Devil, our tradition has always believed that he is a liar. In fact, just like all tempters he cannot help but lie or otherwise distort the Truth. Even when he quotes Scripture, as he does here, he twists the meaning.   Our Lord is the Truth; the Devil represents the complete absence of Truth.

The first temptation deals with our basic human needs. Of course, it's not just about food and hunger. It's about all the things that we think that we must have to sustain our standard of living. Maybe we don't all want to be millionaires but we all know how the frantic search for the things of this world can destroy our basic human relationships. As Jesus said, "One does not live on bread alone."

In the second temptation the devil takes Jesus to the top of the Temple in Jerusalem looking down over the parapet 450 feet straight down to the Kidron valley and urges Him to "throw yourself down."  Maybe we don't think that it's serious when temptation stares us in the face, but sometimes when it does we are on the brink of the precipice with the rest of our life on the line. The words of Jesus should be a guide to us all. "You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.

The third temptation deals with the search for "power and glory." Lying again, the Devil claimed that all the kingdoms in the world had been given to him and that he will give them to Jesus "if you will prostrate yourself and worship me."  Every day in the newspapers we read about some politician, CEO, athlete or entertainer who is in trouble with the law. Most of us are not such big shots but we know of the power struggles that go on in our own families, our schoolyards, our workplaces and even in our churches.

At the Jordan John the Baptist said that he must diminish so that the Lord could increase. It is just the opposite with the search for "power and glory." Once again, Jesus quoted from the Book of Deuteronomy; "The Lord, your God, shall you worship and Him alone shall you serve."  Of course, the best way to worship is available to us at Mass each and every day during Lent. Let's try to take a half hour out of our hectic schedules during the week to humble ourselves before the Lord.

Our Lord's words show us the way to true happiness. We were created to live in a beautiful paradise but when sin entered the world, pain and sorrow and even death were the result. Lent gives us an opportunity to get back on track. It gives us an opportunity to examine our lives and see how far we have succumbed to the temptations that constantly face us. There is hope if we follow the example of Jesus. In Saint Peter’s letter we read,

Christ suffered for sins once,The righteous for the sake of the unrighteous,That he might lead you to God.


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Reading 1. Genesis 9: 8-15
Reading II. 1 Peter 3: 18-22
Gospel. Mark 1: 12-15 (Temptation in the Desert)

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Jesus Heals the Leper

6th Sunday in Ordinary Time
                                    



Leprosy was one of the most dreaded diseases of the ancient world. In the Gospels we have a clear picture of the roads of Palestine, particularly those near the entrance of the towns, haunted by lepers, who would hold out their dreadful fingerless hands to awaken the pity of those who passed by, but who would only succeed in terrifying them by the horrible "lion's mask" that the disease sets upon the sufferer's face.

There was no cure for leprosy. The only remedy was to cast the leper out from society. The leper was to go bareheaded, wearing special clothes; he was to live far away from towns and villages, and whenever he came near a healthy person he was to call out in a loud voice, "unclean, unclean." It is no wonder that the disease was considered a spiritual as well as a physical malady.

Today’s first reading contains instructions from the Book of Leviticus on how to deal with lepers. The gospel follows up with the account of the cure of the leper from the first chapter of St. Mark’s. Incredibly, this leper actually approaches Jesus and kneels down before him and begs, “If you wish, you can make me clean.”

Hearing this gospel, it is natural for us to wonder about who are today’s lepers. Who are today’s outcasts? Any number of different types of people will come to mind but maybe we should consider the question from another point of view. No sane person today would think that a dreaded disease like leprosy was the result of someone’s sins. However, there can be a kind of spiritual leprosy.

Whenever we read the gospels, we should always try to put ourselves in the picture. It’s a kind of unofficial sign of the divine inspiration of the gospels that we can usually see that they apply to us and not only to people who lived 2000 years ago. Today, instead of wondering who are the lepers in our society, it might be better to consider that we ourselves are lepers.

While our bodies show no sign of the dreaded disease, our souls could be disfigured. Just because our society no longer believes in the seven deadly sins, it does not mean that they have gone away or that their ugly sores do not disfigure our souls. Pride, anger, lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, and envy have not disappeared from our world.

All we have to do is read the newspapers or watch TV to realize that these things are still among us at every level. Lust is so common that there is no point in even discussing it. Anyone watching Judge Judy knows that anger is all around us. Even children are not immune. When children want everything their friends have, that is envy and it disfigures their souls more than the worst case of acne. Sloth is spiritual laziness and it attracts us even at a young age. It leads all of us to avoid difficult tasks and shirk difficult assignments.

Despite what some say, you don’t have to be rich to be greedy. Sure, the rich and famous build huge mega-mansions for themselves, but just watch ordinary people searching for homes on the Home network if you want to see greed. On one recent episode, a woman wouldn’t even consider a home unless it had granite countertops. Maybe, her attitude also showed the beginnings of pride. She had led a good life and had reached a modest level of success and now felt that she deserved her reward.

Pride is the worst of the sins since it can infect us even after we have managed to avoid or overcome the others. Seniors should be especially concerned since they are often prone to think they know it all.

The whole point of today’s gospel is that we all need to be made clean, and fortunately Jesus has shown us the way. “I do will it. Be made clean.” Interestingly enough, after he had cured the leper, he told him to present himself to the priest and follow the rules prescribed in the Law of Moses. Jesus was telling him that he was now free to re-enter the community. He was no longer a spiritual outcast.           

Today we live in the wealthiest society on the face of the earth. Even our poor have a standard of living that would be the envy of others living in other parts of the world. And yet there are disturbing signs. Who can deny that there is so much unhappiness in our country today? Millions of people are taking anti depressant medication. Just the other day the newspaper carried a story about the increasing use of anti-depressant drugs among teenagers.

Could it be that our unhappiness is related to the constant attacks on religion and morality today that are aimed at destroying the spiritual immune system that once protected us from sin and its consequences. Why do so many people feel like spiritual lepers, unloved and unwanted? Is it because self-indulgence has replaced self-sacrifice?

In today's second reading, St. Paul advises us to practice the virtues that are the opposite of the seven deadly sins. Humility, for example, is the great antidote to pride. No matter what we do we should do everything not for ourselves but for the benefit of others.

The words that Jesus spoke to the leper were also spoken to us:


“I do will it. Be made clean.”

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Reading 1. Leviticus 13: 1-2, 44-46
Reading II. 1 Corinthians 10: 31—11: 1
Gospel. Mark 1: 40-45 (Be made clean)