Four days ago we finally began our Lenten pilgrimage after a long Epiphanytide. For a solid eight weeks following the Epiphany we have celebrated all the ways Jesus was made manifest as the messiah to the world and have studied how these stories help us recognize how Jesus is made manifest in our midst today. Wednesday, we received our invitation to a holy Lent, had ashes placed on our foreheads to remind us of our mortality, and we are now at the first Sunday in Lent.
As you might have gathered from our gospel lesson from Luke this morning, things have gotten really serious, very quickly! No sooner has Jesus come up from the waters of his baptism, he hears an affirmation of his identity from his Heavenly Father, and the Holy Spirit descends upon him. In a sense, Jesus has an epiphany and is filled with the Holy Spirit, which then leads him into the harsh Judean desert where the gospel writer says that he was tempted by the devil for forty days. Now, think about that for a moment: even though only three of Satan’s challenges are recorded in the lesson, Luke is quite clear that he is tempted for forty days, all the while with no provision of food or sustenance.
I do not know about you, but I am not encouraged by starting out on these forty days of Lent with a story of Jesus being subjected to mental and physical abuse by the devil! This may explain why Lent is not at the top of my list of favorite Liturgical seasons, especially since my track record with temptation is pretty dismal. I know you may find that hard to believe, but I am the guy who gives up craft beer for Lent and by week two I have succumbed to the desert heat and am quenching my thirst with a cold, refreshing IPA straight from the devil’s hand! In my frustration and disappointment with myself, I try to make myself feel better by thinking of something I can give up the next year where I might actually have success, like perhaps, asparagus. Nothing banishes temptation quite like asparagus. Yet to give up something that would not be challenging is to set out on an ‘adventure in missing the point’; the point being that temptation is a part of our everyday experience. Saint Antony, one of the first of the desert monastics was recorded as saying: “This is the great task of man, that he should hold his sin before the face of God, and count upon temptation until his last breath.”[i]
About three years ago, I was searching for a book to study for Lent and found one by Fr. Arthur Hall, SSJE entitled Self Discipline. The title sounded harsh and ascetic to me, just what I might need to hone my skills at mastering temptation during my Lenten pilgrimage. What I found actually helped to change my perspective. Fr. Hall mentions two things to keep in mind when approaching a Lenten discipline. First, we must remember that self-denial should not be mechanical and without an ulterior end; it is the sacrifice of the lower self for the sake of the higher self.[ii] In other words, if we do not have our higher nature in mind when we set out on a Lenten discipline, then we do not stand a chance when confronted with temptation.
Second, the purpose of our Lenten discipline is for the training and building up of our spiritual fortitude, not for its destruction and tearing down.[iii] Like training for a marathon, the body needs exercises that will incrementally build up the body and its endurance. Over-training and ignoring what your body needs will lead to injury thereby sabotaging your goal of taking even your first stride in the race. The fourth century monastic Evagrius Poniticus is reported to have said, “If you want to know God, learn to know yourself first.”[iv]
For Fr. Hall, it is not necessarily about what you will give up for Jesus to show your love for him, but rather what will help you become a better follower of Jesus; what are the obstacles separating you from the love of God? Remember that God was the one who called us to our Christian vocation, not the other way around. The first epistle of John says that: There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us.[v] In the first letter of Paul to the Corinthians we read: So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God.[vi] The glory of God appeals to our higher natures and will help us be resilient in the face of temptation.
Going back to St. Antony and the desert mothers and fathers, I am heartened and encouraged by their witness to following Jesus into the desert. They went there not as an escape from temptation, but rather to face temptation head on and in a sense partake in spiritual warfare. St. Antony was said to have gone to the desert to fight demons. Perhaps this really meant to face hisdemons, the demons of his lower self for the sake of his higher self, the self called to follow Jesus. (The first of the clerestory windows in the chapel is my favorite and it depicts St. Antony, who looks strikingly like Gandalf from the Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings, with a little red demon at his feet). The desert mothers and fathers all practiced what Benedictine Anselm Grün calls ‘spirituality from below.’ In his book Heaven Begins Within You, he explains that today’s spirituality is from the top down. It presents high ideals that we are supposed to translate into reality, and in doing so we repress our weak points and limits because they clash with that ideal. Ultimately, we are afraid to admit our weaknesses. I would say that admitting weakness is counter-cultural not to mention very un-American. Grün goes on to say that the desert monastics teach us spirituality from below. They show us we have to begin with ourselves and our passions. The way to God, for the desert fathers, always passes through self-knowledge.[vii]
I wonder if this was why the spirit led Jesus into the desert in the first place. Instead of facing Satanic temptation under extreme circumstances to test whether his baptism really took hold, perhaps Jesus himself willingly (filled with the Holy Spirit) undertook this forty-day journey and fast into the desert in order to learn more about who he was incarnationally. What did it mean to be both divine AND human. If his mission was to restore creation to its rightful place, the place before humanity first experienced temptation at the hands of the great deceiver, then it follows that Jesus would need to experience first- hand in his humanity what got us into this situation in the first place. St. Athanasius said that, “Jesus cannot save what he did not assume.”[viii] And that is good news!
Jesus is God Emmanuel, which means God with us. Just as the spirit led Jesus into the desert and did not leave him alone in the presence of Satan, so Jesus will not leave us alone on our earthly pilgrimage to face the one who wishes to separate us from God’s love and instill in us fear. Temptation is a tool that should makes us stop and process just what is going on within us, so that we can choose with God’s help that which will keep our focus on Him rather than distract us from being who God created us to be at the very beginning…..God’s loving companion, friend, and co-creator.
And so, as we enter once again into the rhythm of the Lenten pilgrimage, we need to keep in mind that temptation is a useful tool in the right ordering of our affections. As Fr. Hall reminds us in his Lenten opus, temptation is not sin. The dwelling, welcome, and pleasure in the temptation (which leads to action) is what is sinful.[ix] Sin at its very core is what separates us from the love of God. We are likely to succumb to temptation when we are at our weakest. This is when Satan is apt to hand you a cold IPA to quench your thirst in the desert, which we all know does not quench thirst, but in fact intensifies it. When we begin to entertain the thoughts of temptation, it would be wise to call to mind a slogan in 12-step recovery: H.A.L.T. Do not let yourself get too Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired. When we experience any one or a combination of these things, it is time to halt and ask Jesus to attend to us and give us what we need to heal. Jesus will supply our need for as he says to the Samaritan woman at the well: Everyone who drinks of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.[x]
In a moment, you will be invited to come forward to partake of the sacrament of the altar, bring with you all that burdens you, tempts you, and that you know is separating you from God’s love, lift up your hands and give it to Jesus. And return receive a piece of bread and sip of wine, the body and blood of Jesus, which will break your fast and give you the very provision and sustenance you need to overcome your temptation and appeal to your higher nature, one whose focus is on the love of God for you. And then continue with Jesus through the desert towards Easter!
Let us pray:
Almighty God, whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan: Come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations; and, as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
[i]Grün Anselm. Heaven Begins within You: Wisdom from the Desert Fathers. Crossroad Pub., 1999.
[ii]Hall, A. C. A. Self-discipline: Six Addresses. New York: J. Pott, 1894. Print.
[iv]Grün Anselm. Heaven Begins within You: Wisdom from the Desert Fathers. Crossroad Pub., 1999.
[v]1 John 4:18-19
[vi]1 Corinthians 10:31
[vii]Grün Anselm. Heaven Begins within You: Wisdom from the Desert Fathers. Crossroad Pub., 1999.
[viii]St. Athanasius (c. 293 – 373), Bishop of Alexandria, Egypt.
[ix]Hall, A. C. A. Self-discipline: Six Addresses. New York: J. Pott, 1894. Print.
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