Homilies written and presented by Monsignor Peter Magee
Homily 2-29-2004 Lent I
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First Sunday of Lent (C): Read Lk. 4, 1-13

 

                Since last Wednesday, much attention has been devoted in many quarters to the film “The Passion of the Christ” of Mr. Mel Gibson. I have not yet seen it. Still, it seems clear that valid points are not absent on all sides of the debate that has been unleashed in its regard. There is one point, however, which offers a particularly important opportunity to preach about Jesus. I would like to take that opportunity and use it as a way to help understand something of today’s Gospel reading.

                It has been said and written that the film in question fails to offer us a proper context for understanding the violent suffering and death of Jesus. More of His teaching and scenes from His public life recounting His marvelous deeds, as well as an understanding of his conflict with the religious leaders of the time, would, it is said, have helped make the film more meaningful. The point is well-taken and well-intentioned. However, from a strictly theological point of view, it is, I believe, mistaken.

                The reason for this is simple and it appeals, at least to some extent, to our own experience. The biographies of great people are usually, and perhaps exclusively, written only because they have accomplished some great deed in their lives. Take Mother Teresa or Maximilian Kolbe or any great figure of the secular world you like. If their words are remembered and quoted, it’s only because their deeds have made a profound impression upon the human spirit. This is all the more so in the case of Jesus. Had He not died and risen for our sakes, His many penetrating words and marvelous deeds, or miracles, might well have faded into the shadows of history. Of course, as believers, we cannot relegate Him to the same level as other human beings. His deeds, especially His passion, death and Resurrection, are not just marvelous: they are salvific, redemptive and, thus, transcendent. All Jesus said and did before what He Himself called His “baptism”, meaning His passion and death, only has any meaning or power at all because of what He suffered. It is not all that precedes the passion which gives context and meaning to it: rather, it is the passion which gives context and meaning to all that precedes it. Had the apostles never written or even said a word about what went before, the mystery of Jesus would still be proclaimed in the simple account of the passion and resurrection. St. Paul recognizes this when, in First Corinthians 15, he articulates the heart of Christian tradition in the following words: “I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures …” (vv.3-4). This is what we call the kerygma, the heart and essence of the Gospel and of the whole of the Bible. That heart is not the Sermon on the Mount except insofar as that Sermon is fulfilled and lived out by Jesus in His passion. Nor is it His parables of forgiveness, His healings or His exorcisms, except insofar as all of these receive their fulfillment in the destruction of sin, sickness and death in the crucifixion of His mortal body on the Cross and in its Resurrection to immortality.

                The heart of the Gospel is the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, and all other parts of the Gospel text foretell it, unfold it, lead to it and receive their wisdom, light and power from it. The Gospel is not an ideology or a biography; it’s not a chronicle or the transcription of a lifelong press conference; it is not written for us to manipulate it to suit our selfish interests or justify our partialities, crusades, wars, oppressions or social programs; it is not for our aesthetic gratification, either in art, music, architecture or cinema. With due respect to all these, it is not any particular artist’s work nor the sum of the work of all artists. For good or for ill, the Gospel text has been, and will be, used by men and women for the purposes mentioned. But the Gospel does not belong to them as artists for art’s sake: the Gospel is for the salvation of all. Indeed, the Gospel is not so much a text about Christ the Savior as it is the Savior Himself. Just as the meaning of anyone’s life is found in the fulfillment of their vocation and mission, the meaning of the life of Jesus Christ is found in His suffering and death for our sins and in His Resurrection for our justification. And since Christ is our life, then the meaning of our own lives is the Gospel. It is thus at least ironic that some, perhaps out of fear, ignorance or even pride, would seek to appeal to the wisdom of Jesus as a way of avoiding or diluting the Cross of Jesus, for His wisdom is in fact His Cross. It follows that the heart of the meaning of our own lives is to be found in the passion, Cross and Resurrection of Jesus. It is into these that we are baptized; it is into these that we must plunge our own trials and tribulations as individuals and as Church. Jesus surely did reveal Himself as a child; later, as a man, He revealed Himself to be the epitome of meekness, understanding and compassion in His public ministry. But, albeit to our great dismay, Jesus most fully revealed who He was as He hung on the Cross. There, the God of evangelical folly revealed Himself as willing to suffer the rejection of mankind and, yet, to go on loving him just the same. A love faithful in the face of murderous hatred, unto death and beyond death, is eternal love, is divine love, is the love of Jesus. Neither miracles nor eloquence saved us, but only the merciful love of Jesus Crucified, our wisdom, our holiness, our power and our sanctification.

                The free decision of Jesus to embrace in action the will of divine love, rather than the will of human or diabolical self-love, is another way of speaking of both the agony in the garden and of the temptations in the desert. Thus we see how today’s Gospel reading is woven into, and finds its fulfillment on, Calvary. Satan seeks to take divine words, the words of Scripture, in order to lure Jesus away from the divine will. But Jesus masterfully unveils the deceitful manipulation of Satan by revealing the true interpretation of Scripture. Scripture alone is not enough: it must be interpreted according to the mind of Christ, given to us in the Holy Spirit working in the Church’s Teaching Authority. Of course, Jesus does not defeat Satan by the power of His words and interpretation alone: indeed, as the Gospel reading says, “the devil departed from Jesus [only] for a time.” That time was the last 12 hours of Jesus’ life. During that time Jesus said no word to defend Himself: He only acted, He fulfilled the words and their interpretation in His deeds, and by His death He defeated the devil definitively. After the death of Jesus, Satan would return to Him no more.

                It is sure doctrine that the texts of the Gospels were not only written after the death and Resurrection of Jesus, but that the material included in them was selected and ordered by the Evangelists in the light of those events, and under the influence of the Holy Spirit. To read the temptations of Christ, or any other Gospel episode, in isolation from the passion and resurrection of Jesus, will prevent anyone from understanding the full depth and implications of those episodes. The greatest temptation of Jesus was “not to drink the cup the Father” had given Him. Here is the meaning of all the other temptations He received; here lies the greatest power working against Him in His passion. Just as the full flowering of the faithful love of Jesus took place on the Cross, so the full force of the power working against Him was revealed upon it. It was a force which now sought to dissuade Him, no longer with sweet words and enticing rewards, but with violence, physical and spiritual, as extreme as the hatred of Satan for God. The seeds of discontent with Jesus shown from the beginning of the Gospel are revealed in all their lacerating viciousness throughout the final hours of His tragic, yet saving demise. And if He died thus because of our sins, it is our sins, and our sins alone, that killed Him. Dramatic art may offend our sensibilities, but we need to ask ourselves if our sensibilities are not ultimately rooted in our reluctance to admit the full, horrible impact of our sins, big and small, on both the flesh and on the Spirit of the Savior. Of course no-one likes to see that impact in flesh and blood, and some might rather deny they have sinned at all, itself the greatest sin of all. Nevertheless, Jesus, whose very name, given before His birth, already signaled His saving death, could not allow Himself to be thwarted by our sensibilities, even although He understands them more than we do ourselves. He had, in the words of the Gospel, to suffer grievously at the hands of men, be killed and, on the third day, to rise again. Without His iron will and iron wounds, there would be no Gospel and we would still be without hope of forgiveness.

                In life, it is never wholesome, by definition, to focus solely on partial truths. To do that is the meaning of heresy. To focus solely on the paschal mystery of Jesus is not, however, such heresy, because that mystery is the be all and end all of Jesus Himself. In it is revealed not only the Son of God, but the Blessed Trinity itself, its Heart torn open and its love poured out in passionate, life-giving surrender to us sinners. Simeon prophesied that Jesus would be a sign of contradiction for the rising and falling of many. We should not be surprised, then, if the kernel of His story, however it may be depicted, fulfils that prophecy. But, with the resolve of Jesus Himself, we should seek in the midst of all controversy to be compassionate, understanding and loving, and then our Christian witness will not be a satanic caricature of Jesus, but a heartfelt imitation of, and participation in, the reality of the Passion of the Christ.

 

Msgr. Peter Magee

Sunday, February 29th, 2004: St. Matthew’s Cathedral, DC – 10.00 am