Let us be humble to accept we are nothing without God and we may achieve nothing by our own efforts.
The start of Lent – the forty days and forty nights. As we Catholics say: “Dust to dust and ashes to ashes”. This means our mortality and our submission to the laws of nature. Christ rose again from the dead and was never reduced to dust nor was His mother. For us it is a salutary reminder we are dust and ashes and we have come from those ashes of crumbling humanity. We are simply dust – no more: A humbling and contrite thought yet requiring a courageous leap of the imagination. In this world we feel so alive and bodily alert yet we are on the way to dust whatever we may believe. Unless we are conscious of our ultimate bodily corruption we miss the point of life and Ash Wednesday.
2. The Forty Days and Forty Nights.
This is the Lenten fasting and Jesus Christ in the wilderness tempted by the devil himself. What were the three temptations: Turn these stones to bread to satisfy your hunger. Answer: Man does not live by bread alone. Essentially Christ was saying I live by the Holy Spirit not by mere visible food. Of course we have to eat yet the message is the spirit is within us and we should be directed by that spirit. Life is built upon the Spirit not on the mundane and run of the mill. We should aspire to be driven by that Holy Spirit in our lives. The Holy Spirit combines with God the Father and Christ to make the Trinity upon which our Christian lives are assured. In this temptation Christ is pointing us in the direction of the Trinity and our especial vocation to the religious life: priestly or as laity. Secondly the empty promise of all the kingdoms of the lands. Christ quickly reacted with the First Commandment: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and all thy mind. Christ’s hallmark is he always reacts swiftly and in a pertinent manner. This impudent temptation called for this response and floored the tempter – who was being driven to the third and final temptation. On the roof of the Temple why not throw yourself down? Your angels will catch you and stop you from dashing your head on the ground. This was the invitation to pride and to self-harm and suicide which Christ saw through immediately. Is it not said “Do not put the Lord thy God to the test”. The crucial words are “the test” - do not bring the matter further than you have to – God must never be tested for the sake of being tested. He is omnipotent and we should respect His power and discretion which the devil clearly did not. The devil rudely wanted to put Christ and His Father to the test and was rightly rebuffed and rebuked.
3. What are the results of these three Temptations:
The devil is repulsed and Christ is vindicated and fortified by His affirmation of His Sonship. Each temptation is a niggle at Christ’s virtue and has a superficial allure and attraction. Christ’s single mindedness and clarity of thought is truly remarkable in the face of such flattery and deceit. The devil – the tempter – planned Christ’s downfall and Christ was human enough to succumb but actually rose above the particular temptations aimed at his ego and self-esteem. He was being asked to back himself alone and go against His Father by the tempter. It must have been tempting to accede to that approach by the evil one. In the end He did not let folie de grandeur or self-adulation slip into His thinking, mind and heart and refused to go along with the arch-tempter and remained steadfastly loyal to His Father in Heaven. What an example to us in that loyalty!
4. Where does Lent lead?
To the passion and death of Jesus Christ on the Cross on Calvary on Good Friday. The forty days and forty nights were His preparation for the defining moment of the Last Supper and the sacrifice of the Mass in the Roman Catholic Church. His fasting in the wilderness strengthened His moral fibre for His ordeal to come in Jerusalem. Clearly He would not have been walking if He had nothing to eat for the forty days. He was walking on air or He tasted food in the wilderness. The Passiontide story reminds us Christ knew what was coming to Him: “I will not drink wine again until I drink the new wine in the Kingdom of Heaven” said at the Last Supper – the day before he died. Also “if this cup may pass my lips” in the agony of the Garden of Gethsemane. He was so close to His death then it was staring Him in the face. He had a foretaste of His being put to death in this preaching period – namely: His altercation with Simon Peter and “get thee behind me” exclaimed by Christ when Peter would not accept Christ’s utterance of His fate. His words “the son of man will suffer grievously and be put to death” are a little rhetorical and designed to persuade his disciples he was a “marked man” and warn rather than predict the outcome exact which even Christ could not envisage then. Do we know what is coming to us? If we are honest we should say yes to that question with Christ at our side and in our time of trial as well. The disciples could not understand this teaching of Jesus about His passion spoken in confidence by Him to them regarding His time of tribulation to come before he got to Jerusalem. Even Peter the lead apostle found this crucial teaching of His Master beyond him and at that time of first utterance by Jesus. For our part we should concede humbly like Peter we do not understand the depths in our lives and hearts.
Thus Ash Wednesday is brought to fulfilment in Christ’s death and burial and resurrection – the greatest turn around in history and ever will be. Christ rose bodily from the dead – the tomb was empty. He walked the earth – He spoke and blessed and broke the bread and showed His wounds to Thomas – doubting Thomas. There was no dust nor ashes but the Risen Christ was on the road to Emmaus with his two disciples. Yes their hearts burned within them. We begin with dust and end with the Risen Conquering Son. In between we have the forty days and forty nights of our estrangement from God. We will not rise again until the resurrection of the dead – a very difficult dogma to believe – truly the Phoenix rising from the ashes. Best left to the theologians not us mortals. We may bless our communication with Heaven however hard it may be to have intercourse with God Himself in the exile of the forty days and nights. My Lamb family motto is “no reward without dust” – yes the dust of death and desiccation. From that dust comes forth the Heavenly reward of the World to come - Blessed are they who suffer persecution for Christ’s sake for they shall inherit the Kingdom of Heaven”. Amen to that I will always say and may you join me.