Sunday, March 5, 2017

IN THE CLEARING STANDS A BOXER: A homily for the First Sunday in Lent Year A, (Matthew 4:1–11)

As usual you may listen to the audio here.

You will be familiar with Boxing to some degree.  We have all seen a boxing match, at least in passing, with the ring roped off and the fighters facing one another.  They pound away at one another until someone wins at least by the judges’ verdict.  Each seeks a decisive, even a knock out blow, to get beyond his opponent’s defenses and bring him down.  It is a brutal sport but a great image for what is happening in this Gospel passage.

    Our Lord is like a boxer who goes out into the open space, the ‘ring’ of the desert to confront His most dangerous opponent and the reigning champion, Satan.  Satan does not know Who Jesus is.  Since in his pride and arrogance he would never dream of becoming human He cannot conceive that God could or would become fully man and so he finds our Lord to be an enigma.  He sees only a challenger, another fool of a human being who thinks he can confront an angelic intelligence and not be bested.  Satan has kept his distance so our Lord must draw him out.  He goes into the desert, to the place the Jews thought of as the dwelling of the demons, to fast and pray, to place Himself there as bait.  The evil one waits because he is a coward and will only attack when his opponent is weak.
Satan makes his move.  They slug it out for three rounds, three attempts by Satan to undermine the Lord, and our Lord wins each time.  It is not a decisive victory for Satan flees before He can be dealt with.  Satan has tapped away at our Lord with his usual punches, the ones he has tried and tested, perfected over the ages, but to no effect.   He tries to tempt Him with concern for His body, with concern for spiritual experience and with concern for power and wealth.  He has fails and he has not even left a mark on our Lord.  He has swung and jabbed but our Lord has ducked and blocked each punch while delivering stunning blows in return.  Satan is not defeated but he flees knowing that he is dealing with someone new.
The desert, as I have said, was seen as a place of danger and death, a dwelling place for demons.  Jesus, lead by the Spirit goes into the desert to engage in this spiritual warfare with Satan as an example to us that we too must struggle with evil in our lives.  Our Lord fasts for 40 days and nights, that is, He removes from his life all distractions, anything that might ‘stand between’ Himself and His Father, He makes space for the Father, a visible, total gift of His attention.  After this He is hungry.  Well that’s to be expected but hungry for what?  Not just food but for the defeat of Satan and the salvation of souls.  Christ is hungry for our freedom and our communion with the Father.
Satan comes to Him with three temptations: care for his physical life, care for the apiritual or religious experience and care for power and wealth.  Remember he overcame our first parents with but one temptation: the physical enjoyment of a forbidden fruit. 
First he says “If you are the Son of God” – for Satan is not sure and he thinks that our Lord may be uncertain too.  He is tempting the Lord to perform a miracle to satisfy both His physical hunger and His curiosity but not the will of God.  Satan wants our Lord to put His own wishes before those of His Father. Our Lord’s response is profound is so many ways.  One does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes forth from the mouth of God” means not only that God’s will takes priority over everything but that whether we live or die is entirely at God’s prerogative.  He is totally surrendered to the will of His Father and so He fears neither hunger nor death.  In fact He tells us elsewhere that His food is to do His Father’s will.
Satan changes tack then and moves Him to Jerusalem to the parapet of the Temple, the biggest building by far in that city.  He again takes a swing at our Lord and tempts Him concerning His identity, urging Him to prove it to Satan that He is the Son of God, to take a step that will cause a miracle to happen, to put His own will before that of His Father.  He quotes scripture to our Lord “He will command his angels concerning you and with their hands they will support you, lest you dash your foot against a stone” but he quotes selectively for he leaves out the next line “you will trample on the young lion and the dragon” the last being a term for Satan himself.  Our Lord quotes scripture back and again it has to do with respect for the Father’s will “You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test. 
Then Satan tries for the kill and takes our Lord to the top of a mountain, showing Him the kingdoms of man and offering them to the Lord if only He will worship Satan.  He thinks he can bring Him own with concern for wealth and power.  Our Lord dispatches him with the simple line “The Lord, your God, shall you worship and him alone shall you serve.  He leaves unsaid that all the worship of mankind rightfully belongs to God and that as Son of the Father He is the One through Whom all things have been made and are sustained.  Satan flees defeated and the angels come to our Lord like attendants to a boxer who has gone three rounds and won his fight.

Brothers and sisters we are entering Lent.  We are entering the ring to face up to the evil in our hearts and in our lives.  This is the time to make the extra effort or to begin if one is making no effort at all.  We are emulating the Lord in confronting the evil one in our lives.  We do this through prayer, through fasting and abstinence and through giving to the poor.  These are the three remedies for our sins, the three punches we can swing at the enemy.  They call down God’s loving mercy upon us and motivate us to repent, to confess and to entrust ourselves to His mercy.  If you fall in the fight then get back up.  If you fall again get back up again.  It is only when you fail to get back up that you give up and lose.  Christ asks not that you win but that you try, that you stand your ground and fight to be better, to be good, to be holy.  Pray, fast and give to the poor: remember these moves and you will not go far wrong.

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