The season of Lent is modeled on Christ’s retreat to the wilderness, after his baptism by John and before the start of his three year ministry. In Year A of the Lectionary cycle, Matthew tells the story in much the same way that Luke does in Year B. It is given a distinctive slant, though, by the lessons that accompany it. The Old Testament passage from Genesis, and the Epistle from Paul’s letter to the Romans, make the connection with the Garden of Eden and Adam’s original sin very plain. To understand the wilderness episode, they say, we must see Christ’s resisting temptation against the background of Adam and Eve’s yielding to it. What they originally put wrong, Christ finally put right.
The line of interpretation is clear enough, but its contemporary meaning is not so easy to grasp. The worldview within which we operate today is radically different to the mindset of the Gospel authors. Can we understand their references to Satan? Can we accept the doctrine of original sin that Paul thought to be obvious? Mustn’t we reject the sheer injustice that seems to underlie the suggestion that the sins of generations long since dead can be visited on innocent descendants?
These are questions we cannot avoid. Yet, it is easy to exaggerate the difference between us and the people who lived two thousand years ago. Despite many obvious difference, there is important common ground between their way of life and ours. Human nature and experience remain pretty much the same as they were in Biblical times. Hope and despair, honesty and deceitfulness, innocence and wickedness, sickness and health, calamity and blessing -- these make up the fabric of human lives just as much as ever they did. We deceive ourselves if we think that modernity’s undoubted success in science and medicine has done very much to change that.
In short, the human condition is pretty much the same as it always has been. To believe in the Bible as Revelation is to believe that, however much interpretation the books of Moses, the Psalms, the prophets, the Gospels, and the Epistles may need for a modern audience, they all still speak profoundly to the human condition. So what, on this occasion, does Matthew's Gospel have to say?
Temptation is a perpetual human hazard. Most of us are not positively inclined to cruelty or injustice. Our failings arise from a sort of weakness – the tendency to avert our eyes from wrongdoing by re-describing it in more acceptable, and even attractive terms. It was thus that the serpent spoke to the archetypes ‘Adam’ and ‘Eve’. The Satanic voice is the opposite of Conscience, and can speak to Man and Woman still, always in alluring whispers that suggest ‘this really is for the best’. It is this voice that Jesus heard deep within himself in his isolation – a fact that shows him to be Human. At the same time, he could see that temptation invites us to do something deeply idolatrous – namely, put God’s patience and justice to the test. That is what showed him to be Divine.
The category of catechumens has long been abandoned, and nowadays public confession and penitence is almost unknown. Almost nothing is required of anyone who wants to attend church in Holy Week and at Easter. Yet, while this open and inclusive spirit has its strengths, and ‘holier-then-thou’ judgmentalism is to be avoided, we have lost something that previous ages found to be important – namely, the spiritual and therapeutic value of real discipline in Lent.
The readings for Ash Wednesday point us clearly in the right direction, while at the same time indicating the spiritual obstacles that lie in our way. Through the prophet Joel, God pleads, "Return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning". But he immediately adds a warning: we should not confuse outward show with inward spirit --"Rend your hearts and not your clothing". Isaiah issues the same warning, even more firmly "Such fasting as you do today" he tells the Israelites, "will not make your voice heard on high". Why not? Because it is self-serving and unaccompanied by the real repentance that reveals willingness to change the way they run their lives.
In the Gospel passage, Jesus expresses this same concern. He denounces the showy penitence of the righteous who seek to impress those who witness their zeal. In the light of this passage, which is always used on Ash Wednesday, the ancient, and now very widespread practice of the Imposition of Ashes seems a little odd. Does it not conflict with Jesus' explicit instruction to "wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others"? Imposition in the Christian tradition, however, is not a sign of fasting. Rather, it is a tangible and visible acknowledgment of the truth that lies at the heart of all religion -- our mortality. "Remember that you are dust, and unto to dust you shall return" is the solemn sentence that is uttered as ashes are imposed in the shape of a cross.
We cannot put off dying, but we can put it out of mind. Yet it is a simple fact that there will come a day when we no longer exist. At that point, the story of our lives -- whether good, bad or trivial - is finalized for ever. The problem of our mortality is that we do not know exactly when that day will be. This is why the readings for Ash Wednesday include the memorable urgency of Paul's second letter to the Corinthians "See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!". And so it is for us too. The sole hope of immortality is eternal life in God through Christ. Lent is an opportunity to prepare our hearts and minds to accept this.
Depending upon the date of Easter, the season of Epiphany can vary in length. But regardless of length, in the Revised Common Lectionary, the final Sunday in Epiphany always has the ‘Transfiguration’ as its theme. This year the Gospel reading comes from Matthew; in the other two years of the cycle it comes from Mark and Luke. But there is an unusual degree of unity in all three accounts. Indeed, the Transfiguration is one of very few episodes in the life of Christ that gets substantial confirmation across different Gospels. In all three, a key connection is forged between Jesus and two highly venerated prophetic figures – Moses and Elijah. It is the connection with Moses that this year's Old Testament lesson picks up, recounting from Exodus the episode in which Moses is given the tablets of law.
It is this prophetic connection that gives the event its special significance. ‘Teachers of the Law’ were a common sight in Palestine, and they all attracted followers. But now, for the first time perhaps, the disciples understand that Jesus is different. He is to be placed in the company of the very greatest of prophets. This is powerfully confirmed by a second feature that all three accounts share -- the reference to dazzling light. Such light is the sign that the revelation given to them is of divine origin. On the top of Mount Sinai, Moses alone experiences the fire-like glory of God, and when he descends with the Ten Commandments, the resulting light that shines from his face is unbearable to those who witness it. For Peter, James and John, though, the dazzling light transfigures Jesus in their eyes.
One point on which the Gospel accounts differ slightly is worth noting. Luke tells us that the disciples resolved not to tell anyone about what happened on the mountain top. Matthew, even more emphatically than Mark, is clear that Jesus ordered them to keep silent. “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” From this we may infer that ‘transfiguration’ in the eyes of his followers is not key to his mission. Rather, it is a preparation for what really matters – the transformation of death to life in the Resurrection. The passage from the second Epistle of Peter puts the point effectively. “You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.” Holding on to this thought gives the approaching season of Lent a special coherence. We should be attentive to the little lights of fasting, learning and giving so that we are prepared to apprehend the Resurrection light.
In this week’s Epistle, St Paul tells the new Christians at Corinth that, when he first preached to them, he had to treat them “as infants in Christ.” “I fed you with milk” he says, “not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food.”
It is easy to imagine some of them bridling at this remark, just as a modern congregation might take serious offense if a priest or preacher spoke to them in this way. ‘Who are you to assume such a superior tone?’ would be a natural reaction. Contemporary churchgoers tend to be very egalitarian. They think that everyone's experience of faith is equally 'valid', and individuals need no special qualifications to be Christians.
Yet, the passage from Matthew’s Gospel reads like exceptionally solid food – very hard to swallow, or even comprehend, on a first hearing. To understand these verses, we must first make allowance for the extreme Middle Eastern hyperbole that sometimes Jesus’ sometimes employs. He is not literally requiring his disciples to undergo bodily mutation. Still, the hyperbole is there for a purpose. Discounting it too quickly runs the risk of minimising the challenge with which we are presented. Jesus means what he says. But what exactly is he saying?
In addressing the Corinthians, Paul assumes that there is such a thing as spiritual and moral development. Christian discipleship is not a once and for all response. In the Gospel, Jesus is using powerful rhetoric to confront us with the highest ideal on which discipleship should set its sights. In the Old Testament lesson, Moses tells the Israelites “obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I am commanding you today, by . . . observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances”. We need not doubt that the commandments against murder, adultery, swearing falsely are all to be obeyed, while at the same time acknowledging that simply observing the rules is not enough for those whose minds are set on the things of the spirit. God is a spirit. Those who worship God must worship God in spirit, and the human spirit involves a perpetual struggle of thought and imagination, as well as obedience.
There is a very important lesson to be learned here. In our spiritual and moral lives, striving for excellence is no less important than it is in professional life, in sport or in music. Religious mistakes are possible and one of those mistakes is moral complacency. Kind-heartedness, good intentions and everyday decency are all part of what it means to be a Christian. It is tempting, however, to rest content with these, and make morality of this kind the heart of the Gospel. Jesus’ seemingly excessive demands run counter to this tendency. They point us to a far higher ideal. We cannot expect, and are not expected, to realize them literally, but we are challenged to strive for the sort of excellence that will bring our hearts and souls closer to the reality of God. As we approach Lent, this reminder takes on special relevance. No one can be argued into faith, but for those who believe, serious study and sustained reflection open up the possibility of greater spiritual wisdom.
How are we to understand this? The passage from Isaiah suggests one solution. It ridicules “bowing down the head like a bulrush” and “lying in sackcloth and ashes”, and instead praises “sharing your bread with the hungry”, and “bringing the homeless poor into your house”. ‘”Is not this the fast that I choose”, God declares, “to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?”
This ethical version of ‘righteousness’ sounds far more attractive to the modern mind than either the ritual observances of the Jews, or the austere devotional practices of the Desert Fathers and the Celtic hermits. And yet, we know in our hearts that most of us are no more likely to make the kind of sacrifices that this high ethical ideal requires, than we are to build shrines among desert rocks, or stand praying for an hour in icy water. The greatest possible effort will not enable us to exceed this alternative standard of righteousness, any more than it will the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. The Gospel passage, in other words, still reads unhappily like a council of despair.
Fortunately, we can turn to the help and insight of the Apostle Paul. In this week’s extract from his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul openly acknowledges his deep “weakness and fear”. This is the essential first step to putting his faith in Jesus Christ, and so believing that Christ’s perfection can overcome Paul’s own imperfection. We should not think of this as calling on Jesus to get us off the moral hook, however. Rather, the Gospel passage still assigns us a vital role in the economy of salvation – not to be perfect, but to be signposts to the perfect, as ‘the salt of the earth’ and ‘the light of the world’. In reality our lives as Christians will never be models of rectitude. But they can still ‘give light to all in the house’ if they tellingly reflect what Paul calls ‘the mind of Christ’. Accepting the truth about our frailty should make us honest and humble, enabling us to turn our eyes and those of others to the real fount of righteousness – ‘Our Father in heaven’ whose name alone is ‘hallowed’.
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