Sunday February 17, 2002 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier First Sunday in Lent
Reading I (Genesis 2:7-9; 3:1-7) Reading II (Romans 5:12-19)
Gospel (St. Matthew 4:1-11)
In the first reading today from the Book of Genesis, we hear that the serpent was the most cunning or subtle of all the creatures God had created. What this means is that he is the most intelligent of all the creatures that God created. We must always keep in mind that when Satan fell, after being created as the highest of al the angels, he did not lose any of his intelligence; he did not lose any of his ability or his power. People think that just because he fell he does not quite have the ability he used to have. When he fell, he no longer had grace, he no longer had access to God, his will became perverted and evil, but his intellect remained completely intact. What that means is there is no way that any of us by ourselves is ever going to outsmart the devil. It is a very important thing for us to keep in mind because sometimes, in our pride, we think that we are going to be able to outdo the devil, that we can be more cunning than he will be.
What we see in the Gospel reading is precisely the way that the Evil One works. He just simply lays temptations, but very subtle temptations. We see that there are three different types of temptations. There is the flesh, and so he says to Jesus, "If you are the Son of God, turn these stones into loaves of bread. Satisfy your hunger. Take care of yourself. Look out for Number One." What does our society tell us all the time? Just go to the grocery store and look at the breakfast cereals on both sides of the aisle, for 100 feet or more; [there are] lots of opportunity to satisfy the desires of the flesh. Not only that, just go to any place that sells electronics and what do we have but music (that is despicable by itself) glaring from every speaker in the place and at least 50 television sets with various things flashing in every direction - it is sense overload. But you have plenty of things to choose from; whatever your desires might be, they can be met. It is all about the self; it is all about the sensuality, looking out to make our own lives easier, more pleasant, and more convenient. It is all about pleasure in our society.
But it does not stop there because then the devil - when that one did not work - tempts Jesus with pride. "Throw yourself off the parapet of the temple." [It was] the highest point of the temple, underneath which was a huge square where the people would gather. "Throw yourself off here in the midst of all of these people. The angels will catch you, and you will just float down very nicely to the ground. Everybody will see you and they will think that you are impressive." Isn't that the way the temptations are for us, too? It is all about making sure that we have a title or position or showing off our things, making sure that we get one up on somebody else, bragging about ourselves or about our kids, making sure that the things we have look just a little better than someone else's. Even if not, at least in our own mind, it is one of the things that we regularly do: judging other people, making sure that we look just a little better in our own minds than somebody else, making sure that we justify ourselves so we can walk away smug and content. Pride is at the root of every single sin that we commit. But, once again, we see that it is pure selfishness. That is the synonym for pride: selfishness; it is all about "me". But then listen to what the Holy Father tells us: "We live in a 'me' generation." As Americans, more than anywhere in the world, we live in a "me" society: "It's all about me; it's what I want - me, me, me." That is all we hear about, and it is all that we are told to desire. What is it that you want? That is what the media tells us to go for.
But then there is one more if that does not work - and that is power. In our day, we hear over and over that knowledge is power. We have all kinds of means for power that we want to lord over other people. Rather than to be humble, rather than to serve others, rather than to pour our own selves out, we instead want others to be looking out for us. We want to be positioned high above all others, or at least above some, so that others will notice. We like to be able to have some sense of authority over others. Remember that authority is given for service. Power is about the self.
And so, Satan brings Jesus up onto the mountain and says, "Look at all the kingdoms of the world; all these will be yours." Maybe for you and me he does not quite do it that way, but it is in smaller ways. "Look at this; you could have power. This gossip will give you some knowledge and power over these other people in the office or in the neighborhood or in your family. If you have this knowledge, think how many people you can share it with!" He does not say, "Think how you will be able to destroy someone else's life and reputation by spreading this malicious gossip and rumor around," but he says, "The power that you have…you have knowledge!" That is what we like and that is what we go for. People get caught up into these radio talk shows and TV shows that are nothing but malicious gossip. They read these vile little newspapers that are nothing more than just spreading slander and gossip about other people. Then, what is worse, it does not stay there; we turn around and we spread it all over the place, as well.
The devil is very subtle. Again, just look at what he did with Adam and Eve. He begins with a lie, but a very subtle lie - it is a question: "Did God really say that you cannot eat from any tree in the garden?" Then you see the response of Eve, and it is no different from any of us, her children. "No, God said that we cannot eat from the tree in the middle of the garden nor can we touch it lest we die." God did not say anything about touching it; God said, "You cannot eat it." But we like to embellish things a little bit. You see where the pride already is creeping in. And then the old devil says, "No, God lied to you. God knows that when you eat of that tree you will be like God." Now they were already made in the image and likeness of God, but when we see that there is a possibility for knowledge, that there is a means for being able to obtain something for the self, we like it. Eve saw that there was something good and pleasant so she ate it.
But all you have to do is think about what we ourselves do. If we meet somebody who is innocent, someone who is very pure and naïve of the ways of sin, what do we do with them? We ridicule them; we make fun of them; we tempt them; we put things in front of their path; we shun them. These are the ones we should be holding up and saying, "Praise God that this person has been spared of all these horrible things that we ourselves have given into!" But instead, just like the devil, we start putting things in front of this person and we try to make the person self-conscious. We try to make sure that this person realizes that they are the one who is different from the rest of us: "Don't you like to be like everyone else? Wouldn't you want to be just like us?" And so the ridicule will get at their pride. The temptations get at the sensuality. Pretty soon, we do everything in our power, very subtly, to lead them into sin so they will be like us. That is the trick of Satan. It is not that you will be like God; that was a lie. "You will be like me" - that is what he was really saying. It is no different from the way we do things to innocent people. We despise their innocence, and so we want them to be like us. We are the ones who have given into sin and we want to drag others down with us. What a tragic way of living!
But it does not need to be that way. Saint Paul makes very clear in the second reading that just as through one man sin comes into the world, so through one man righteousness comes into the world. And so, all of us, who are members of Jesus Christ, have the means to be able to reject sin, to reject Satan, to reject all of his lies - which, I remind you, is what we all vowed on the day of our Baptism. We have made a vow to Almighty God that that is what we were going to do: to reject Satan, all of his lies, all of his empty works. Everything about the vile creature we have vowed that we would reject. So, again, you see the subtlety of the devil when he gets us to do his work to try to drag others down, when he gets us to do his work on our own selves when we tear ourselves to pieces, telling ourselves how rotten, worthless, and horrible we are. Therefore, we reject the gift of God because we do not believe that God could actually love us that much. Instead, we give ourselves over -very subtly but very completely, nonetheless - to the ways of evil.
We are members of Jesus Christ. We have been redeemed. We now live a redeemed humanity - redeemed manhood and redeemed womanhood. We do not need to live according to the ways of sin. Sin is certainly at work within our flesh, but in Christ we have overcome it. Our sins are forgiven in the confessional and we have the grace of God to be able to reject Satan. It is not us against the devil - we will lose; it is us as members of Jesus Christ against Satan - and we will win. We can trounce the head of Satan, we can crush him, and we can reject all of his temptations only in Jesus Christ. The devil is very subtle; he goes after all the weaknesses of the mind and body. And if we give into the pride and think that we are going to take on the devil, we are going to be crushed.
But we have the opportunity to eat of the fruit of the tree of life, the Holy Eucharist. The Cross is the tree of life and the Eucharist is its fruit. Each one of us has been given to eat of that Fruit. And with the power that comes from Christ, we can overcome Satan - but only if we are willing to humble ourselves and rely on the help of God. That is the key. With what we receive in the Eucharist, with the graces that we receive in prayer, we come to understand how Our Lord overcame Satan. If we are willing to unite ourselves with Him, we can overcome the devil. He has already united us to Him, now it is just a question of whether we are willing to reciprocate and do the same. Or are we going to arrogantly try to do things on our own, the American Way: "I did it my way, not His way"?
We are called to unite ourselves to Christ. We are called to lives of holiness. We are called to righteousness. We are called to reject the ways of sin that we have inherited from our first parents and from our own parents. We live in a world that is immersed in sin and selfishness and pride and power. We are called to live lives of humility, of self-denial, lives that are united in Christ, who was lowly and poor. Are we willing to do the same? Are we willing to unite ourselves with Christ and in Him to overcome sin, to overcome temptation, and indeed to overcome the tempter himself? We have the righteousness of Christ at work within us to be able to live as redeemed men and women. The choice is ours to live the way of Satan, the ways of the world, and the ways of the flesh - that all look very pleasant and tempting - or to live the way of Jesus Christ, united with Him and His Cross, but united with Him in His Resurrection and in the redemption of all of humanity, of our flesh, and of the world, to be able to reject everything that is not of God and to choose God, to choose the dignity that He has given to us, and to crush the head of Satan.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.