Keeping the Divine Perspective Always in Our Sight

Homily for Rite of Election (First Sunday of Lent, Year “A”)
By the Most Reverend Salvatore Cordileone, Archbishop of San Francisco
March 9, 2014

Every year on this First Sunday of Lent, the Church presents for our reflection the Gospel story of the temptation of Christ – or, as the Scripture scholars tell us it should be called, “the testing of God’s Son.”  Jesus is led into desert: in the Bible, the desert a place of testing.  The wording of the Gospel we just heard makes this quite clear: “Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil.”  The word “tempted” here means the same thing as “to test.”

The Broader Perspective
It is the first reading for this Sunday, though, that puts this Gospel passage – indeed, all of the Bible – into the proper broader perspective.  It sets the stage for all that will unfold in the rest of Bible: the saving acts of God in God’s plan to restore us back to the life and happiness with Him for which He made us.

The reading is one of most famous stories in all of Bible: the fall of our first parents.  What this passage from Genesis says about Adam and Eve, though, really applies to humanity as a whole, the human condition common to us all.  We are all in this condition, we are all this way, and, it is not God’s doing, it is not what He created us for.

Notice the psychology of the evil one – it always works this way.  Did you hear the question he asked the woman: “Did God really tell you not to eat from any of the trees in the garden?”  “Did He really?”  Notice how he plants seeds of doubt, and then enhances the doubt by exaggerating the claim: “Did God … tell you not to eat from any of the trees in the garden?”  And we see in the woman’s response that she falls for it.  Yes, she acknowledges that it is the fruit only of that one tree that they are not to eat: “it is only about the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden that God said, ‘You shall not eat it.’”  But then she begins falling into the trap.  Notice what she says: “God said, ‘You shall not eat it, or even touch it, lest you die.’”

For liturgical purposes a long section in the middle of this Bible passage was omitted, but it contains a verse that gives us a hint of how Eve is falling for it.  In this verse, God commands the man not to eat of the fruit of that tree; God, though, does not say anything about touching the tree.  So she’s falling into this trap, buying the exaggerated claim, thinking that, well, maybe God really is unreasonable here, maybe He really is placing demands on us that are beyond what we should put up with.  The seeds of doubt take root, and now, instead of knowing God as the lover He is who gives them commandments to show His protection and His care for them, they see Him as some sort of a cruel taskmaster who deprives them of something pleasing and desirable that they want, should have, and have a right to.

Why does all this happen?  Put simply, it is because they lose sight of the divine perspective, of Who God is and of how He created them to live – in harmony with Him and all the rest of creation.  This indeed requires obedience to His will.  Instead, they cast down their gaze from heaven and become completely earth-bound.

This is the pattern we see repeated subsequently all throughout Sacred Scripture, and most especially in the ancient People of Israel in the Sinai desert, the place where God tested them, where they wandered for forty years on their way to the Promised Land after God released from slavery in Egypt.  Saint Matthew’s depiction of Jesus’ testing in the desert connects the scene back to this.  His responses to the devil when tempted – “One does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes forth from the mouth of God”; “You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test”; “The Lord, your God, shall you worship and him alone shall you serve” – are all taken from the Book of Deuteronomy, which recounts the ancient Israelites’ forty years of wandering in the desert.

Clearly, Jesus’ forty days of testing in the Judean desert harkens back to Israel’s forty years of testing in the Sinai desert, only with Israel there is a difference.  With Israel we see the same old pattern we already saw at the beginning.  For example, the devil’s temptation to our Lord to turn stones into bread is reminiscent of the manna in the desert.  You remember the story: the people were hungry, they demanded Moses give them bread, and God rained down from heaven the bread-like substance they called “manna.”  But that wasn’t good enough.  They got tired of eating just bread, and so demanded meat.  And so God sent them quail.  But they still complained!  Even right after the miraculous crossing of Red Sea they complained!  Yes, as soon as they reached the other shore and turned around and saw what that desert was like, they become frightened, thinking they were going to die, and immediately wanted to go back to Egypt!

Poor Moses, he always got the brunt of it.  They wore him down.  Yes, they complained against God, but he was the divinely chosen leader, so was the one who had to deal with it.  You might say that those forty years were characterized by: “God provides, Israel complains.”

Applied to the Christian Life
But let’s not point the finger at ancient Israel.  This is the human condition, we are all really this way.

It is the Church’s tradition to celebrate this Rite of Election on this first Sunday of Lent, at the beginning of the season in which the Church invites to spiritually retreat with Christ in the desert through prayer, penance and works of charity.  This is appropriate, then, because the purpose of the catechumenate as we have it from ancient times is to be a time of testing.  Back in those early centuries it meant insuring that those desiring to be received into the Church had the resolve, the spiritual stamina to persevere in faith during time of persecution.  More generally, whether outright persecution or not, it is a time of testing so that they might withstand temptation of any kind and keep their faith intact.  Persecution is really one form of temptation, albeit an extreme form: to deny the faith in order to save one’s life in this world.

Nowadays, the temptation is more subtle; it is very much like what we heard in the first reading, what happened at the very beginning.  Do you not hear the voice of the tempter today in all of this?  It is almost verbatim from the Book of Genesis: “Yes, that’s what the Church teaches, but do you really believe it?”  The temptation here is not to abandon faith altogether, but to deny certain aspects of it in order to be more socially acceptable in a culture that is hostile to those very aspects of our faith.  It is the temptation to take the dominant culture – whatever it happens to be presenting as right and good at the moment – as the source of true teaching, rather than the Church founded by Jesus Christ.

Yes, this is exactly the tempter’s voice, here and now.  And he only succeeds in deceiving us when, just like at the very start, we lose sight of the divine perspective – when we become focused only on this world, rather than our ultimate destiny of heaven.

Now, those who are already baptized face all these same temptations.  That is why for all Christians Lent is a time of renewal, of spiritual retooling through fasting and other forms of penance, through almsgiving and other acts of charity.

Catechumens and candidates: you have had this more intense time of spiritual growth and instruction in the faith for a longer period of time than these forty days of Lent.  Thank you for responding to the Lord’s call to faith, and thank you for persevering to this point: your witness inspires all of us to greater trust in God for all that He provides for us for our own good and for our happiness with him and one another – in this world and in the next.  I also want to thank your pastors, catechists and sponsors, all those who have accompanied you and have had a part in your coming to this point in your life.

This time of Lent is really a metaphor of our whole life in this world: God created us for the beauty and abundance of a Garden, but because of our sin we have been cast into a desert.  But He has come to our rescue by sending us His Son, who freely surrendered himself to be tested in the desert – and he passed every test, and went on to offer his life on the cross for us, so that he could make us his brothers and sisters – sons and daughters of his Father in heaven – and so share in his victory over death.

As in Lent we fast and pray with our Lord in the desert for forty days on our way to celebrate the glorious mystery of his Resurrection from the dead, so our life here is a pilgrimage through the desert of this world to our true Promised Land: his heavenly Kingdom.

Our being sons and daughters of God means keeping Him always in sight: understanding His will for us through openness to His teaching, and carrying out His will in love, trust and obedience.

Summary in Spanish
Por la tradición de la Iglesia, celebramos este Rito de Elección para nuestros hermanos catecúmenos en este Primer Domingo de la Cuaresma.  La lectura del Evangelio este domingo siempre trata de la tentación de Jesús en el desierto; o mejor decir – según los expertos de la Biblia – la prueba del Hijo de Dios.  Jesús – el Hijo de Dios – se somete a ser conducido al desierto para que sea puesto a prueba por el diablo.  En la Biblia, el desierto es el lugar de prueba; el antiguo Pueblo de Israel fue probado por Dios en el desierto de Sinaí por cuarenta años, en camino hacia la Tierra Prometida después que Dios los rescató de la esclavitud en Egipto.  Pero no pasó la prueba.  Dios siempre les proveía, y ellos siempre se quejaban contra Él.  Les faltaba confianza en Su amor y misericordia, a pesar de las maravillas que hizo por ellos.

En realidad, esta es la condición de cada uno de nosotros.  Es nuestra naturaleza humana, como se ve en la primera lectura del Libro de Génesis, la famosa cuenta de la caída de nuestros primeros padres.  Pero aquí, Adán y Eva significan la humanidad entera: Dios nos creó para vivir en un jardín, con toda su belleza y abundancia; pero, por nuestra desobediencia, nuestro pecado, hicimos un desierto de ese jardín que Dios quiere para nosotros.  Pero Dios no nos abandona: nos envió a Su propio Hijo que, sí, pasó la prueba en el desierto, y ofreció su vida en la cruz para hacernos sus hermanos – hijos e hijas de su Padre celestial – y así darnos parte en su victoria sobre la muerte.  En Jesús está nuestra verdadera liberación, felicidad, y vida.  El devuelve nuestro desierto al jardín de su Reino eterno.

Quiero dar las gracias a todos ustedes, nuestros hermanos catecúmenos y candidatos, por su perseverancia en prepararse a ser recibidos en la comunión de la Iglesia esta Pascua.  Ustedes dan un ejemplo y estímulo a todos nosotros a renovarnos en nuestro camino de fe con el Señor, a renovar nuestro compromiso de seguir a Él con confianza y fidelidad.

Quiero dar gracias también a sus pastores, catequistas, padrinos, y todos los que han acompañado a ustedes y los han apoyado en contestar a la llamada del Señor a una vida de fe en Él.