By: Fr. Andrew Carl Wisdom, OP
I don’t think I’m being paranoid (of course, paranoid people never think they are being paranoid), but I think I’m being followed.
As a Dominican, I’m on the road a lot in my vocations and fundraising ministries asking people for either their money or their life. Well not quite like that…I’m not an old gunslinger from Dodge City. But lately, no matter what priory or rectory or hotel I stay in around the country, the same commercial comes on the T.V. for some restaurant I’ve never heard of called The Golden Corral. Yes, I’m being followed by a commercial! After an appetizing, sumptuous spread of mouthwatering foods, it’s seductive, sound bite suggests: “Help Yourself to Happiness.”
That advertising tagline, “Help yourself to Happiness,” could be a summary slogan for this season of Lent. Now at first glance, what this liturgical season brings to the table doesn’t strike one as very appetizing or alluring. First we are smeared with ashes and reminded we begin as a pile of dust and will end as a pile of dust. We’re told to fast; to confront petty preoccupations, jealousies and judgments, our superficial attachments; to repent of sinful and selfish ways. Let’s be honest: are we having fun yet?! However, in our Eucharist Preface we pray: “Each year you give us this joyful season.” Come again? Did I hear that right? The clue to this conundrum is a few lines later: “As we recall the great events that gave us new life in Christ, you bring the image of your Son to perfection within us.” Lent is an annual call to re-embrace the life of the Risen Christ in us as the definitive gift of God’s friendship to us and to renew that friendship as our deepest joy, our greatest happiness. After all, we are told from the very beginning from the inspired Word itself, from the book of Genesis that we are the very image of God Himself. This is not then, a dour season of gloom and doom. This is not a season to beat up on ourselves or anyone else for that matter. It is a time to receive from the always outstretched hand of God that which will really quench our deepest thirst and satiate our abiding hunger. It is a time to reexamine how we pursue happiness in our words, choices and actions and redirect our efforts from so many things, to the one Someone that really matters!
Our first reading is the precursor to those great events. Israel’s ritual remembrance is a celebration of all “God’s doing” on their behalf. Yes, the gift of a land of abundance, and certainly, the Exodus; the arduous 40 year journey from slavery to freedom, spiritually, every bit as geographically. But even more significant, the graced realization for Israel of who they are before God, their identity as a chosen people, a beloved nation, not through any of “their doings,” but “God’s faithful doing.” Moses’ instruction functions as a vehicle for the people to acknowledge the gratitude owed to Yahweh for His past fidelity; a vehicle, if you will, with shiny rear view mirrors. You see, it was only in looking back that Israel came to know in her heart that “objects in the mirror are closer then they appear.” Israel saw how near God was when He appeared to be the most distant. Isn’t it so often the same with us? We look back through the rear view mirror of our lives and see a Divine Friend unwavering in his faithfulness to us. Lent hits the “liturgical pause button,” serving as our yearly ritual of remembrance so that, like Israel, we’re reminded of God’s fidelity even amid our infidelity and gratefully, consciously, recover our original identity as the beloved of God, as the cherished friend of God.
As it says in our Opening Prayer, “you formed man from the clay of the earth and breathed into him the Spirit of life.” What an original picture that paints! One spiritual author vividly places us at the scene of what he calls “the pristine moment of creation” where we “find God, his hands still smeared with clay, hovering over us, breathing into us his own divine life, smiling to see in us a reflection of Himself.” It is the task of recovering that original identity of ourselves before God as a mirror reflection of the “Divine Doing” and embracing its implications for our lives that is the joyful task of Lent. By God’s doing we know who we are, yet we are relentlessly tempted to construct who we are out of our own doing. This is the inner spiritual warfare portrayed in today’s gospel. “Help yourself to happiness,” after all, could also be Satan’s slick slogan!
Beginning with the reassuring words “Filled with the Holy Spirit” Luke seems to lull an unsuspecting audience (you and I) into a psychological ambush: The same Spirit, who just affirmingly, majestically descended on Jesus at His baptism, is now leading him into the dry, dark, dangerous desert to a confrontation with Satan. Interestingly enough, while Matthew in his gospel parallels Luke’s comforting opening of the Spirit leading Jesus into the desert, Mark declares in stark terms: “the Spirit drove Jesus into the desert.” Friends, the Spirit of God sometimes leads, sometimes drives us into that place we don’t want to go, but must go if we are to wake-up to our true happiness: the daunting desert of our own demons; extremely tough because we live in a society that is determined to pursue pleasure and avoid pain at all costs, even if it kills us spiritually. But we go into that inner desert this Lent with the courageous example of Our Lord, trusting that the same Spirit who protected Jesus is there to protect us.
Just as Adam and Eve’s fall to temptation challenged not simply God’s authority, but God’s intended role for human beings, so we see the same classic dynamic in the three temptations Satan puts before Jesus; the temptation to immediate gratification, letting one’s momentary appetites rule rather then wait on God to provide, the temptation to self-glory: to make a name for himself with his wonder-working; the temptation to personal power: demanding proofs of God’s promises by testing His fidelity. All are variations on the same theme; different colored apples with the same inner core: the temptation for Jesus and for us, is to create our own program for happiness rather then trust and obey God’s program for us. Notice, Satan never questions Jesus’ calling as Messiah, but tempts him to live it out in a way differently then God has precisely planned, a way that circumvents the cross that will lead to new life for him and for us.
Jesus’ struggle with temptation and ours is not meant to be suffering for the sake of suffering, but a radically different answer to the question that has kept philosophers employed since time memorial: What is the nature of true happiness and how do people achieve it? People want to be happy…how they hope to get it is an ongoing debate. Jesus, in rejecting Satan’s slick suggestions is rejecting today’s standards for pursuing success and happiness: immediate gratification, self-aggrandizement and personal power; as spiritually, a dead-end.
Lent’s ultimate meaning is not merely to give something up or do something additional, but to rediscover Someone. It is to shock our system; to sober us up; to challenge us to take stock of how we are helping ourselves to happiness and if that path to happiness is real or the wasting of our precious life. If the latter, Lent is the time to just stop, and decisively turn it around. As the philosopher Kierkegaard said: “So much is written about wasted lives, but only that person’s life is wasted who never …in the deepest sense receives an impression that there is a God and that they themselves stand in this Gods’ presence.”
So if you want to help yourself to happiness…, no problem. But will it be of your creation or of God’s creation?