Ars Praedicandi: Ed Foley’s Homily for the First Sunday of Lent, Year A

by Fr. Ed Foley, Capuchin. 

At this stage of the season
at this stage of the liturgy
it is an exercise in the obvious
to announce that it is Lent …

If we don’t know that
from the music,
the vestments,
the sung Kyrie …
and all the other liturgical signals,
then announcing it in the sermon seems a touch futile.

Knowing that it is Lent,
and understanding the meaning of Lent, however,
are not coterminous.

As illustrated by the decidedly untrue story
of the brilliant magician performing on a cruise ship:

Unfortunately every time he did a trick
the captain’s parrot would yell
“It’s a trick, he’s a phony, that’s not magic”

One evening during a storm while magician was performing,
the ship sank,
the parrot and magician ended up in the same lifeboat.
For several days they just glared at each other
without speaking.

Finally on day three the parrot piped up, and said
“Ok, I give up, what did you do with the ship?”

Having an experience does not always mean that we understand it.
Likewise. experiencing Lent does not ensure
an authentic, even Christian grasp of the season.

And of course innumerable interpretations of Lent abound.

Some think it is the season that theologically proves
God is a kind of divine Marquis de Sade,
who garners enjoyment from our suffering,
and through these 40 days
the Trinity dances to the divine version of
“It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.”

Others take Lent as an opportunity
to lose a few pounds,
get to the gym more often,
cut back on the booze, or try to quit smoking again,
or do some other relatively healthy activity,
but not necessarily for an underlying spiritual reason.

That approach reminds me of T.S. Elliott’s famous couplet:
The last temptation is the greatest treason
To do the right deed for the wrong reason.

Elliot is onto something in more ways than one
because, like the gospel, he could suggest
that Lent is in some way about temptation
so it might be helpful to journey into Matthew
and glimpse back at Genesis
to discover something of the meaning of temptation
in the hopes that such reflections
might help discern something about
temptation & response as foundational for authentic lenting.

Various gospel commentators and preaching bloggers
interpret the temptations of Jesus in wildly different ways

One blogger suggested that the interchange
between Jesus and the Devil
sounds like scriptural debate between two sages,
two learned rabbis
using various strands of the tradition
in what sounds like a scriptural game of thrust & parry. 

Who could have guessed that Satan knew that much scripture?

Another blogger[1] took a completely different approach
and said it sounds like a lopsided victory story for Jesus,
the devil thwarted at every turn.

Her sermon, entitled “Satan Gets Slammed,”
includes a fictional self reflection by the head demon
trying to figure out how he got outwitted by Jesus.

So she has the devil reflecting:
I’m not used to losing, but I think I overplayed the special effects like appearing out of nowhere with the smoke machine. The flying with him through the air to the pinnacle of the temple and then to the high mountain was also probably a little heavy handed.  On top of that, the angels missed their cue. It was in their contract to show up when I was quoting Ps. 91: They were supposed to be gathered at the bottom of the Temple, wings and eyelashes fluttering, arms reaching up to catch. But no, they were out in the break room setting up for St. Patrick’s day. And then, as soon as I slink off, they show up and fawn all over him.

While interesting – and surely imaginative,
neither the dialogue of the scriptural sages
nor the devil gets duped approach to the temptations
works for me …

One reason is because I don’t believe the gospels
were written to inform us about Christ
but to help us become like Christ
and few if any of us have the scriptural wherewithal
nor the divine chutzpah to slam dunk the devil
at every temptation ….

I think we need another interpretive key
that we can actually exercise in our own lives.

One such interpretation
comes through that striking line in Matthew’s text
that the Holy Spirit leads Jesus into temptation
this seems counter intuitive … in the Our Father we pray
“lead us not into temptation.”

What kind of God is this who leads Jesus into temptation?
Does that mean that it is not the devil
But the Holy Spirit behind all those temptations?

The Holy Spirit leading Jesus into temptation
might suggest that temptation is not some kind of divine trap
but instead an invitation to wisdom.

After all, the Holy Spirit is the seat of all wisdom,
and according to Thomas Aquinas and the Baltimore Catechism,
wisdom is always listed as first gift of the Holy Spirit:

Remember: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety and fear of the Lord.

That Jesus’ temptation could be understood as wisdom passage
is bolstered by the first reading
Since the first reading is chosen in some way to correspond to gospel,
it contains a few slices from 2 different chapters of Genesis
in which Eve seems to mess things up for humanity
and she and her other half end up naked before God.

But in revisiting that text,
notice how it is embedded with images of wisdom
the most obvious may be the tree of knowledge,
but there is also the serpent .. who actually is a wisdom figure,
not the devil who is not depicted
in this early strata of the biblical tradition,
and then the garden planted in the east,
the region from which all light and enlightenment arise.

So maybe the story of Adam and Eve is less about apple trickery
and more about refusing the wisdom journey,
their unwillingness to journey into their deepest selves
and confront whatever might inhibit them
from living in the image of God.

Instead they went for the easy wisdom of the world,
like low hanging fruit,
unwilling to embrace the divine dream to live in God’s image.

They were left in naked humanity.

The Jesus temptation in the gospel
is both similar and different.

This journey into the desert,
into a place of contemplative wisdom,
begins for Jesus right after his baptism
in which the voice calls him
“My beloved Son in whom I am well pleased,”
and Jesus, in this post-baptismal moment
journeyed deep into the desert
deep into himself
to face the dilemma of what it would take
to become that Beloved Son
and live as the very image of God.

In this wisdom journey guided by the Holy Spirit,
he struggled not with some external tempter
but with the demons within that might prevent him
from doing the will of the one who sent him
and becoming the beloved announced in his baptism.

For us the journey after our baptism is the same.

To discover how to become the beloved
announced in our own immersion
into the death and resurrection of the Lord.

This past week I presided at the funeral
of an estranged family member,
a proverbial back sheep
who over the past few years,
especially in the face of tragic loss in his own life,
began to renew himself
and the friendships and family ties
he had brutally severed so many years ago.

In almost 45 years of public ministry,
I have never presided at a funeral on Ash Wednesday.

My estranged relative was not overtly religious,
and the texts and music employed in the ritual
that took place in a funeral home, not a church
were decidedly secular.

Tony was a big fan of the Band Kansas … that was his era,
and at his funeral – after a reading of Bilbo’s “Last Song”
from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings,
the funeral home echoed with the refrain

Dust in the wind
All we are is dust in the wind
Dust in the wind
Everything is dust in the wind.[2]

It is a startling text and haunting refrain
to hear at a funeral
especially on a day when Christians around the world are reminded
“You are dust, and unto dust you shall return.”

So are we just dust in the wind?
Our lives and loves just temporary amusements
to distract us from the eventual oblivion that awaits us all?

Or is that the ultimate temptation
one with which Jesus himself struggled…
and in rejecting that temptation he crafted a life
that refuted oblivion as his future … and ours-
a life that rejected the premise that we are dust in the wind.

So this divine dust buster refused to treat anyone else like dust,
like refuse,
like an alien,
or foreigner,
or religious outcast.

Instead His living and dying proclaimed
all are children of God.
All are worthy of respect and welcomed.
All are beloved even and especially in our difference.

We live in a world, in a society
hat increasingly seems to suggest that the other is simply dust
to be discarded, derided, dismissed.

Maybe that is the new temptation:
Dismissive tweets displacing apples or bread,
pinnacles and parapets.

Yet Lent as an invitation into the wisdom journey,
as a time when individually and collectively,
we need to choose …

Opt for dust or dignity … for the tempter or Christ

And so, with the poet[3] we muse:

We have come to the point of decision,
and the hands of the clock say – be careful.

We’ve learned from the past that our choices
are one or the other or neither.

And the hands of the clock say – be careful.

We have readied ourselves for the challenge
by weighing the odds and the chances
of what will result from our choices,
and the hands of the clock say – be hopeful.

We’re not what we were when we started,
and the hands of the clock say — it’s over.

Our yesterdays lengthen like shadows
that fade when we no longer cast them,
and the hands of the clock say — it’s over.

Despite what it brings to surprise us,
we treasure each day in its passing
though we know that we pass as it passes,
and the hands of the clock say — discover. 

We sit on the porch every evening,
and the hands of the clock say — be watchful.

We study the leaves in their turning
from green to vermilion to purple,
and the hands of the clock say be watchful.
While we stare at the sky in its vastness
and name every star in the distance,
we dwindle to scale in the balance,
and the hands of the clock say – be grateful.

The dead come to life in our dreaming,
and the hands of the clock say — remember.

The words of a prophet keep haunting
the ones who ignored him when living,
and the hands of the clock say — remember.

The world that we think is around us
is neither before nor behind us
but always within us, within us,
and the hands of the clock say – forever.

In the spirit of the poet and at the urging of the gospel,
let us be careful, be hopeful, be grateful,

and always remember … remember … remember forever

how he loved every human being,
in every time and place unto death
the only begotten, crucified and risen …

Whom we cherish as brother, friend and God with us,
forever and ever.

[1] Condensed from a commentary by Alyce McKenzie, now available at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/knackfornoticing/2016/02/the-devils-hindsight-edgy-exegesis-for-lent-1c/ (accessed 1.iii.17).

[2] http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/kansas/dustinthewind.html, accessed 1.iii.17.

[3] “And the Time is” by Samuel Hazo.

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