Today is the first Sunday in the holy season of Lent. ‘I hate Lent!’ So said Jonathan Swift. ‘I hate Lent, with its different diets and herb porridge, and sour devout faces of people who only put on religion for seven weeks.’ I actually like Lent. Many of my brothers would I think say the same. It’s a time to get serious. Not just giving up chocolate. The Jesuit James Martin wrote, ‘Don’t give up chocolate; give up being a jerk! It’s time to get serious about God and our lives. It’s a time to go into the desert of one’s heart to encounter God. A time for deeper prayer, repentance, silence and solitude. To look with unblinking eyes at the state of our lives, our relationships, our world.
The world we live in is a beautiful gift, God’s gift to us. And yet we know that God’s gift has been ravaged and broken. Our greed has plundered the land and damaged the environment. Millions live in abject poverty and hunger. Our wars, as in the Ukraine right now, have and continue to kill and maim and disfigure millions. Our sin has broken and scarred our relationships with one another, broken up families, divided people of different cultures, races, and beliefs. Our world, God’s precious and fragile gift to us is torn and divided violently at every level.
This terrible process is described in the New Testament as the work of ‘diabolos’ or the devil. That Greek word ‘diabolos’ used in the New Testament, literally means, ‘the one who throws apart’. The work of diabolos is essentially to divide, to break up that which was one.
Jesus is tempted by the evil one to do something, to become somebody that was possible, but that was wrong. And he knew it was wrong, a wrong contorting of his power. Where we are most vulnerable to temptation is not just where we are weak, and know it, but rather where we are strong, and can use our power to the wrong end.
Jesus, and, later, Saint Paul, were convinced there are forces of both good and evil at work in this world. The evil forces are very seductive. Why else are we prone to do or say what we know full well to be wrong? Why do we cave in? And so Saint Paul speaks of our need for spiritual armor… which may sound a little corny in this day and age. But this is a “heads up” about our need for just that: spiritual armor, of needed protection for our soul.[i]
You probably do have up-to-date anti-virus software on your computer. You probably do take your doctor’s recommendation for immunizations against polio, tetanus, hepatitis, pneumonia, and influenza. You probably do wash your hands throughout the day as a kind of precaution against invasive germs and viruses. You probably accept our country’s need for military defense to guard us against an enemy attack. All of these are protections to ward against adversarial powers. But the thought of “spiritual armor” may not garner much of your attention. It should. We need what Saint Paul calls the “armor of God”: protection from head to heart to toe because we all are vulnerable to temptation and attack from the enemy of our soul.[ii]
I’ll draw on the insight of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, the sixteenth century founder of the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits. In his earlier life, Ignatius was an armor-bearing knight and soldier.[iii] Ignatius says that the enemy of our soul is like a calculating general sizing up the opponent.
- Your vulnerability to temptation may have to do with your risk of losing your center or your sobriety. What is it that makes you vulnerable? It may have to do with your proclivity to over-work, or to under-rest, to obsess or to pretend, and so your fuse is short or your rationalization is great. In an unguarded moment you may quietly say to yourself, “I deserve this,” “I can get away with this,” something, which if you were more sound and centered would be a dangerous temptation, as you would well know.
- If you are prone to harbor resentment, you are very vulnerable. Resentment is residual anger, a dis-ease, and it will metastasize in your soul. Resentment will lower your resistance to oppressive forces, and it will infect you. Resentment will compromise you and make you vulnerable to become the person you resent.
- If you are prone to lose your gratitude for being alive, you are spiritually vulnerable. God is the source, sustenance, and destiny for our lives. If you are prone to lose that perspective on the amazing gift of life, of so much that is mysteriously wonderful, beautiful, sustaining, strengthening that comes to us from God… if you are prone to lose sight of this, then you are vulnerable to the idolatry of being your own god. And that god will prove too small for you. You will be tempted to compensate. You will be powerless in your hour of need and sorely tempted to hide or to die away.
- If you are inappropriately critical of other people, you are vulnerable. I say inappropriately critical of other people, because we absolutely need critical faculties to navigate our relationships. Being inappropriately critical is to see other people as better than you or as worse than you, and therefore you are either inferior or superior to them. That’s inviting trouble, because you lose your dignity in that kind of judgment, and, in your eyes, so does this other person. We are not better or worse than each other. We are simply different from one another, and God loves differences. Look at the diversity of creation! The temptation to be derisively critical is a temptation far afield from the splendor of God’s love, and that temptation is a very slippery slope.
- If you are prone to keep secrets, you are spiritually vulnerable. I’m not talking here about your valuing privacy, nor about your keeping confidences, both of which are very important. I’m talking about living your life looking over your shoulder or keeping your head down, hoping that something is not discovered or traceable, wanting something going on within you can be kept in the dark, when it desperately needs the light. Those kinds of cheating secrets are a kiss of death, and they will put your soul at risk because that darkness will grow without light.
- How are you vulnerable, from the inside out? How are you vulnerable?
In our lifetimes, we do not lose our spiritual vulnerability. We would not want to lose it. How we come to know God, how God breaks through to us, is oftentimes through something that is broken in our lives. That break becomes God’s breakthrough, again and again. But our being vulnerable for the good also puts us at risk for being vulnerable to the bad. I’ll use a medical analogy. A patient in a hospital anticipating surgery is looking for a good outcome. The surgeon will take every precaution that something bad, something potentially infectious or invasive, does not infiltrate what is opened up for the good. And so must you. We are spiritually vulnerable, for good and ill. Ignatius of Loyola says that there is a kind of spiritual warfare going on around us and within us. We are being fought over, and we need to be protected.
Ignatius says that in every soldier’s set of armor there are chinks, little breaks in the armor’s lattice that make the soldier particularly vulnerable in those areas. Ignatius says these particular breaks don’t go away in life. Where and how you are vulnerable will likely remain for the rest of your life. Ignatius simply says, remember, you’re vulnerable. Don’t let down your guard, especially where you know yourself to be vulnerable.
We need spiritual armor. We personally need the 21st century equivalent of the 1st century “armor of God” described in the Letter to the Ephesians so that we can stand firm.[iv] Saint Paul gives a spiritual overlay to the first-century armor of a Roman soldier: a belt of truth buckled around your waist; a breastplate of righteousness to give you courage and protection to face what is wrong and must be righted; your feet fitted so you are ready to spring not to war but to peace; a shield to extinguish the flaming arrows, the strategic attacks of the evil one; a helmet of salvation to guard your mind from what is untrue or fake. That’s first century Roman armor, allegorized.
What armor do you need, now? Let’s pause for a moment. Just ponder this. Where do you need “armor” – protection – in areas where you are very strong and gifted. Where do you need “armor” – protection – in areas where you are quite weak and fearful? We’re most vulnerable in areas where we are very strong and where we are very weak. If you had custom-designed armor – let’s say 3 pieces of armor – where do you need protection from the assault of the evil one, the enemy of our soul? What armor do you need?
There is more going on in this world than meets the eye: the spiritual equivalent to germ warfare. The presence and power of God is operating: God’s light and life and love. God’s invitation for us is to co-operate with how God operates: to claim our need for protection and God’s invincible and available power. And God’s power and protection we’re assured of. Claim it. Claim what you need. Saint Paul writes, “we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”[v] Heads up. Claim the protection you need, the armor God has for you. Take it up… and having done, do not be afraid.[vi]
[i] In Ephesians 6:12-13, Saint Paul writes that “our struggle [in this world] is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places…”
[ii] Ephesians 6:10-18.
[iii] Saint Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556).
[iv] Ephesians 6:14-17.
[v] Romans 8:37-39.
[vi] Ephesians 6:13.
As the daylight changes, as the blankets and mounds of snow melt, and the ground and gardens come back into view, how the perspective changes. We stay out longer as light extends. We see what was hidden: familiar plants along with trash and debris. Today’s scripture stories tell two perspectives: one in a garden, one in a wilderness.
That first garden was Paradise with everything provided. Amazing life with an abundance of food, pleasure, beauty, creatures and companionship. Our first parents had a life of harmony with nature, with each other and with God. They were naked and unashamed.
Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7 and Matthew 4:1-11
Some of you may have noticed as you entered the chapel this morning the icon displayed on the small table in the antechapel. The name of the icon is “Ladder to Heaven,” and it dates from the 12th or 13th century. The original icon can be found at St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai desert.