[This exquisite homily was written before Lent began, but with Msgr. Batule’s kind permission, we share it with you here.]
Tuesday of the Sixth Week
Jam 1:12-18; Mk 8:14-21
February 14, 2012
Memorial of Saints Cyril and Methodius
The Crucible of Choosing
In a little bit more than a week, Lent will be here for us. It’s a stark season for sure, but one that’s very vivid at the same time. Its vividness is tied to the fact that many of us give things up as a penitential discipline. In most cases, though, the “giving up” is temporary. We return to regular eating patterns, viewing patterns and other such things just as soon as we mark Christ’s victory over sin and death at Easter.
Along with giving things up, there is of course the struggle to do just that. We wage an internal battle, fending off urges and impulses to use what we pledged not to use on Ash Wednesday. How fitting then is the gospel for the First Sunday of Lent we hear no matter the year on the calendar! The Synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke – pretty much convey the same material concerning the temptation of Jesus at the start of His public ministry. This year, being Cycle B, we will listen to Saint Mark’s version. It’s a typically sparse rendering by the evangelist – just three verses in the lectionary and the Bible. (cf. Mk 1: 12-15) And if you take away the fact that the text in question includes Jesus going to Galilee to begin His public ministry (cf. verses 14-15), you’re really only dealing with a two line description of the temptation by Saint Mark. Not long, we would have to concede, but long enough. It’s long enough to incorporate the irreducible basics related to the temptation. We find that Jesus is tempted in the desert, that He is in that locale for forty days and that Satan is the Tempter. (cf. Mk 1:12-13)
The gospel for the First Sunday of Lent gives us specificity and concreteness. It gives us the answers to the questions we would ask if we were analyzing the incident, say, forensically. It satisfies our curiosity involving who, when and where of the case in question. It doesn’t offer us any commentary about the nature of temptation and why temptation is such a powerful force in our lives. The word of God does indeed provide that data for us, but we have to go elsewhere to get it.
Yesterday, we started reading at daily mass from the Letter of Saint James. We will continue to listen to selections from this New Testament book right on up through Tuesday of next week, the day before Ash Wednesday. In today’s first reading, the sacred author treats temptation in the first part of the passage. He gives us what I would regard as the etiology of temptation, and this neatly complements the specificity and concreteness of the evangelist. The etiology gives us the layers behind what is observable. When we peel back the layers, we’re able to get at the nature of temptation, we’re able to appreciate why it is such a potent force in human endeavors.
Saint James writes that desire conceives and brings forth sin. And sin, when it reaches maturity, gives birth to death. (cf. Jam 1:15) There you have it! Disordered desire is at the very foundation of temptation. And that’s just the beginning. It grows and increases until it reaches a mature stage, comments the sacred author. And in its fullness, the temptation eventually metastasizes and results in death for the one who is tempted. I like to refer to this phenomenon as the trajectory of tragedy. To use another image, there’s an arc to temptation. It rises not to glory but falls to misery and heartache.
Jesus is without sin but He is the Master of choosing. No matter what the condition is, He chooses the Father and the Father’s will. (cf. Jn 5:30) That is how He is triumphant in the desert. That is the secret of His success. And it can be ours too if we let it.
This is a period of transition for many of us here at the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception. How do we successfully negotiate this juncture in our lives? Let me suggest for our consideration today someone who might serve as a guide, someone quite adept at following wherever the Lord was leading him. I am referring to Jean Marie Lustiger.
Born in 1926 into a Jewish family in France, Jean Marie at the age of 13 decided to seek Baptism. He was baptized a Catholic in 1940. Eventually discerning a vocation to the priesthood, Jean Marie was ordained in 1954. He later was made a bishop, having served first at Orleans and then transferred from there to be the Archbishop of Paris. In 1983, Pope John Paul II created him a cardinal. With family members killed by the Nazis in concentration camps and having a father who once tried to get his son’s baptism annulled, Jean Marie’s life was filled with surprises and great drama. In a volume titled Choosing God, Chosen By God, Lustiger told the story of his own life in a series of interviews. His keen sense that the Lord had chosen him began with Israel’s election, he confessed. But he believed Christ to be the Messiah, the hope of man’s redemption.
Surrounded by uncertainty and not knowing where we should go next, the Lord calls out to each one of us. We can let go and trust because of the example of the apostles who took up with Jesus, believing as Andrew did, that he had found the Messiah. (cf. Jn 1:41) We choose God because He has first chosen us. His choice of us as servants builds confidence that we can choose the Lord ahead of disordered affection, before uneducated desire. Temptation affords us the opportunity to be firm and resolute in where we are going in life. When we choose the Lord and His Kingdom, it sets us not on the trajectory of tragedy but on the road to Jerusalem. In our own crucible of choosing, we are renewed and emboldened by Jesus’ desire there “not my will but yours be done.” (Lk 22:42)