First Sunday in Lent
As we enter upon our quadragesimal purification, Holy Mother Church invites us to turn our attention to the holy angels. Indeed, in Psalm 90 which is the great Lenten psalm, the angelic creatures play a predominant role. Twice a day we will be reminded that the Lord has commanded His angels to keep watch over us and guide us in all our ways. This is vital at all times, but more especially in times of more intense spiritual battle, and such is Lent. As we go out into the desert with the Lord, leaving behind many things: some food and drink, some leisure and amusements, and above all the noise of the world that comes to us through technology, we can be sure that the enemy of our human nature will increase his own diabolical activity and seek to lead us astray by means of his wiles.
This is why we are given to read on this day the gospel of the temptation of our blessed Lord. The enemy tempts Him when He is alone and hungry. He charges with the threefold concupiscence: concupiscence of the flesh, concupiscence of the eyes and pride of life, and the Lord resists his intrigues, armed each time with a verse of Holy Scripture and is served by angels.
The intensity of this spiritual combat is illustrated by St Paul in the epistle. He enumerates the trials he has had to endure: afflictions, hardships, constraints, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labours, vigils, fasts (2 Co 6: 4-5), and the weapons he has used: purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, unfeigned love, truthful speech, the power of God; with weapons of righteousness at the right and at the left, that is to say, neither being puffed up in prosperity nor cast down in adversity (2 Co 6: 6-7). Glory and dishonour, insult and praise are equally received, with perfect equanimity of mind and heart. We are treated as deceivers and yet are truthful; as unrecognized and yet acknowledged; as dying and behold we live; as chastised and yet not put to death; as sorrowful yet always rejoicing; as poor yet enriching many; as having nothing and yet possessing all things. (2 Co 6:8-10).
Let us consider attentively these words of the apostle. Even though we are telling the truth, we are called deceivers. In a homily that we read on Holy Saturday, St Augustine points out that the High Priests referred to Our Lord who had just been executed as “that deceiver”, so that when we His servants are called the same we may not be discouraged, but rather heartened. If you have ever been called a liar when you are speaking the truth, if ever it has been insinuated that you are taking people for a ride when you are actually helping them, then you know what the apostle felt like, what the Lord felt like. There is no greater pain for a man of truth than to be called a deceiver. If even the apostles did not avoid the insult, let’s not be surprised if we do not.
Even though unrecognised, we are acknowledged. The world of course will never recognise who we really are, nor with those in high places. But that does not matter, for we are known, and very well known indeed by those whose opinion really matters. What an incitement for us to pursue untiringly the preaching of the truth and the saving of souls in the face of a world that pretends that we do not exist. For those whose duty it is to preach the Gospel in season and out of season, it makes no difference whatsoever what people think. As St Paul writes elsewhere: as long as Christ is preached, it matters not who preaches Him.
As dying and behold we live. Yes, in every generation, faithful Christians are deemed to be dying. Nietzsche made it one of his most scathing reproaches to Christianity that it formed weaklings because of the importance it attaches to humility and dying to self. Oh, but how terribly mistaken you were, my poor man, for it takes a grandeur of soul of which you and your consorts are not capable, to embrace those heavy crosses and tread those hard paths, which lead indeed to death of the body, but through death to life eternal. For yes, we are considered to be dying – with St Paul once again we wish to die every day! (Cf. 1 Cor 15:31)) – but even here below we have already a life the quality and intensity of which remains unknown to those who will not taste it. Expertus solus potest credere.
As chastised, and not put to death. Yes, worldly-minded people will always seek to chastise true Christians in every way, for they cannot understand what we are about. They may push us into a ghetto that they themselves have created, we may be treated as pariahs and pushed out to the peripheries and beyond. Chastised we may be, but oh not put to death. No we are far from dead. Like the Hebrews forced to remain in the land of Goshen and who there became more numerous that the stars of the heavens, so shall we be.
As sorrowful and yet always rejoicing. How sad those Catholics must be who get their priest to paint a black cross on their head and give up so much fun and pleasure because they are afraid of hell. So they say. We appear to be sorrowful because we weep for our sins and for those who do not weep for theirs. Sorrowful we are. How could we not be when we see the utter dereliction of the moral order in our world, when we hear the lies, the same murderous lies repeated over and over again? Yes we are sorrowful, but deep down we are always rejoicing, for there is a joy that the sensual man knows not and that is mingled with sorrow for sin in a way that only the one who has taken that path can understand. Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted (Mt 5).
As poor and yet enriching many. We are told that the faith has nothing to offer, that the world has moved on from medieval times and has discovered a whole host of new ways and approaches; we are assured that the values of today’s world enrich the Church, and that we who fail to acknowledge it are the poor. Poor, yes we are poor, and we very happy to be so. We are delighted to be deprived of what the world has to offer, of the theories of both modern science and modernist theology, the former telling us that there is no God, the latter that man is God. No we prefer to be poor, the poor of the true God, the poor of the God who became incarnate to enrich us with His poverty (cf. 2 Co 8:9), for in Him, by our very poverty we become a source of eternal riches to souls who are starving to death in the wasteland of a godless world and empty churches.
As having nothing, and yet possessing all things. If we have God, the true God, we have all things. If we do not have God we have nothing. If we have Christ we lack no good thing. If we do not have Christ we have nothing. St Francis of Assisi never tired of repeating, even through entire nights: My God and my All! My God and my all! If we are reproached for having nothing in worldly terms, then let us be content that it is so. The emptiness of creatures makes for the fullness of God.