Monday, 7 March 2011

1st Sunday of Lent - Year A

Genesis 2:7-9.3:1-7; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11

'What do we want?’


‘When do we want it?’


This is an ugly little chant, and most people instinctively know it, sometimes even the chanters, which is why it is often disguised as something else. And yet it expresses a great longing at the heart of so much of modern living. Pope Benedict XVI, in Chapter 3 of his book A New Song For The Lord has this to say: There is something fascinating and simultaneously threatening about the word “power”: all human beings dream of having power, of being able to manage things as they want, and in this way of being free and fearless in the world. But for most of us this remains a dream.

In what follows I am going to try to ‘creatively’ summarise Pope Benedict’s thoughts and explore a little of what true power and true hope really are and what they are not. We’ll look first at the account of the third temptation of Jesus in the Gospel for this Sunday.

Satan takes Jesus to a very high mountain and shows him all the kingdoms of the world and all their splendour. I am reminded here of the Mafia boss who takes his new recruit to his office and shows him the vast area of New York under his control. In the very height of the ‘very high mountain’ and in the very vastness of the Mafia bosses territory we see immediately the limitations of their power.

Satan claims to be the real ruler of the world. We know that this is a lie but I wonder if Satan is lying to himself or if his pride is so complete that he really believes his claim? In that case he would be truly ‘lost’.

He offers Jesus power and its ‘splendour’, or as we say in Australia, its ‘pomps’; and we note that in the Rite of Baptism, where in order to become a Christian, one must renounce not only the devil but his ‘pomps’.

The splendour of power, signifies being able to do what you want, enjoying what you want, having everything at your disposal and being able to choose the place of honour. We might call it ‘walking the red carpet’. No pleasure is turned down; every adventure is possible; everyone kneels before you. You may do everything you want and can do everything you want.

It is that same deceitful ‘being like God’ with which Satan tempted Adam and Eve that he now offers to Jesus, and it is really a caricature of the likeness of God. God is not like that at all. God’s power does not ‘lord it over others’. What Satan offers instead is a parody of God’s freedom and power.

Notice the kind of power Satan offers:
  • A power which is not really his but which he simply claims or steals.
  • A power which has ‘splendour’ but which in fact is very limited.
  • A power based on terror, fear, selfishness, the rape of others, and the idolisation of oneself.
  • A power which is given in return for slavery and obedience to Satan.
This power, wielded by the powerful of the world is often offered to the Church which has a duty to reject it every time. To accept this power would be to place oneself under the power of those who offer it. This kind of power cannot save. This kind of power does not ennoble man, but damages and destroys the dignity not only of those who wield it but also of those against whom it is used.
Let us turn briefly to another text from Matthew. Jesus is again standing on a high mountain and the question of power comes up once more. This time he can say: All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. This time it is a question not of earthly power alone but also of power in heaven. This is why he can say ‘all power’. What he refused to take from Satan is now really his because it comes from God, to whom all power belongs. How did Jesus obtain this power, and what sort of power is it?

Firstly we have to remember that the one who is speaking is now risen from the dead. His power came to him from the other side of death, from the risen, eternal life, and therefore it is power which spans all things and all time.

Before Jesus could stand on this mountain and claim power over heaven and earth he had to climb another mountain, that of his crucifixion. On this mountain he was raised ‘on high’ but in the exact opposite of Satan’s ‘heights’.
Satan’s heights are only limited power in a limited context – like power in the sandpit or the playground, to use an example from a school context. Satan’s power is only a tiny fragment of power which will ultimately be revealed as no power at all.

The heights of the mountain of crucifixion are the heights, the power, of relinquishing all - everything - and hanging naked between heaven and earth but totally one with the will of God, his Father. In this unity he gains ‘all power’ because all that is of God comes to him. Jesus renounced the ‘being able to do all things’ of Satan and received the Father’s power on the cross of this renunciation.

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