Homily, Lenten Sunday 1A
One of the challenges of warfare—sometimes most of the challenge—is to be able to correctly identify and recognize the enemy. From what I’ve heard, this is what makes the war on terror so difficult and so stressful. Terrorists don’t wear uniforms, and they often disguise themselves as civilians. If we don’t know who or what we’re fighting against, or if we’re not able to recognize them, we can end up wasting a lot of energy, time, and other resources, even fighting against ourselves and against our own allies.
Now if you look at the Old Testament and the history of Israel, even if you look at that part of the world still today, we know that God’s chosen people were well-acquainted with warfare, with conflict, invasions, and exile. And by the time Jesus was born, one of the great expectations, and part of the sort of job description of the Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed One of God, He was supposed to free the Jews from their enemies. Even as God had freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and sent against the Egyptians the ten plagues—in a sense, making war upon them—so the Jews in the days of Jesus were expecting the Messiah to lead a military campaign against their oppressors. And who were they most likely to identify as their oppressors, as their enemies in the time of Jesus? Probably the Romans, the governors that Caesar had appointed over them.
The Gospel we heard today probably doesn’t sound much like the account of a military campaign, but that’s exactly what it is. After His baptism in the Jordan River, after we see Jesus Anointed with the Holy Spirit of God descending upon Him like a dove, the Spirit of the Christ leads Him on campaign “into the desert to be tempted by the devil.” You see, the Jews had a much more ancient and dangerous enemy than the Romans, or the Greeks, or the Babylonians, or the Assyrians, or the Philistines, or the Egyptians, or any other group of people that had made life difficult for Israel over the centuries. Jesus identifies the true enemy of the Jews, the true enemy of every human being. And by overcoming the various temptations of the devil, Jesus leads us as our King and General to lasting victory over sin and death.
As we begin this season of Lent, the main problem that most of us have, myself included, and the reason that many of us don’t actually make a lot of progress in our spiritual lives is that we don’t see sin and disobedience of God for what it really is: the only real enemy in life, the only thing that can bring us lasting harm. Most of us just want to treat the symptoms rather than the cause of our disease, to fix and tinker with our circumstances of life, instead of actually seeking the transformation of our hearts, of our minds, of our behaviors. We’d like to have more money, to have a better job, less stress, better relationships, but we’re not often all that interested in actually breaking with sin, identifying, working against, and rooting out our own bad habits, our own ways of thinking, of speaking, and of doing things that we know are not healthy and not holy.
Because we treat our own sin as a minor problem—or excusable for me because of my difficult and special circumstances—because we don’t recognize and fight our real enemy, we continue to run up against the same walls time and again in our spiritual lives. It’s no great wonder that we face the same problems—for years or even decades—in our relationships, in our families, in our workplace and in our free time, when we have not yet taken a real stand against the greatest evil in our lives, which is sin and disobedience of God.
As I was growing up, I came across a very short biography of St. Dominic Savio, who was a student of St. John Bosco in Italy. From the time of his First Holy Communion at 7 years old until his death at age 14, St. Dominic Savio had a motto that he would often repeat to himself, one of the resolutions he had made on the day of his First Communion: “Death, but not sin.” Death, but not sin. He was very clear in his own approach to life of what his greatest enemy was and the lengths that he should go to avoid it, that he would rather die than willfully commit even one sin. He would allow his physical life to come to an end rather than jeopardize his spiritual life in the slightest way.
In my own life, I often wonder what my motto would be, when I’m really honest with myself. Instead of, “Death, but not sin,” it might sound more like, “Sin, but not the slightest inconvenience or discomfort,” that the greatest evil that I often see for myself is being prevented in any moment from doing what I happen to think that I want to do, whether what I want to do is good for me or not. This is why I continue to make little if any progress, because I do not recognize and fight against my greatest enemy.
Jesus the Christ came to undue the works of the devil, to show us how to recognize our greatest enemy, our own sin and disobedience, and Jesus gives us the grace to overcome every temptation, if we will follow Him into battle, if we allow Him to lead us as our King and as our General.