First Sunday of Lent
Lent is the season of Christian discipleship, a time to prepare for Holy Week and Easter. In the early days of Christian persecution it was a time for those preparing for Baptism and thus linked with the forty days of testing that the Lord undertook immediately after his baptism. In each of these it was understood to be the individual’s journey of the soul just as the forty years had been for the people of Israel, a time to overcome trials and temptations of faith and righteousness before entering the Promised Land.
From birth, the massacre of infants to death at the hands of the Romans, Jesus lived in the midst of the evil that he personified as “Satan”. Evil has a real and perpetual presence within the human world, and at some point every one of us will have to decide either to build up resources to overcome evil or to capitulate. It remains the case, there is no difference today. Globally, we still face genocide and terror in great proportions and closer to home, slavery or predators who groom women, and children exploited and suffering acts of cruelty – now even under the threat of atomic bombs.
Evil is truly present in the hearts of men and women but today they have discarded the means to engage in the struggle. Jesus entering the solitude of the wilderness faces the same battle and uses the resources of the Hebrew Scriptures and the conviction that through God’s grace, good is in the end stronger than Satan. Temptation for each person in these circumstances is to doubt the power of goodness, truth and love. Temptation is the seed that destroys the soul and leads to darkness and despair.
So again we begin the Lenten journey of the soul remembering that we are looking to Jesus who, shedding his divinity, experiences in the wilderness the full extent of being human. The wilderness is a place of heat and cold, of hunger and thirst challenging the body. It is a place of loneliness and fear that heightens self awareness and the sense of frailty when the enemy within is most active.
This predicament faces us all, and Jesus is no different to any person on life’s journey. “There is no such thing as cheap grace” writes Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The entire life of Jesus Christ is the constant battle with evil and his victory over it. The greatest weapon required is the conviction that good triumphs over evil and that as disciples we have the means of accepting the challenge. Tragically, this is not the character we find in many western churches today where we see a good deal of sleep walking with an insipid spirituality that results as Richard Niebhur, prophetically anticipated, was the outcome of “liberalised Christianity, depicting a God without wrath bringing man without sin into a kingdom without judgement through a Christ without the need for a cross”.
So important is this struggle, that the Lord gives it prominence in the prayer for his disciples, that we pray daily “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.” In this we have a constant reminder that the struggle with the enemy within us is a personal one, just as the enemy comes even to us, and this is personal temptation to deny God and descend into darkness.
Fr. Geoffrey Neal