“Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” (Matthew 4:1)
March 9, 2014
First Sunday of Lent
Fr. Robert deLeon, CSC
“You don’t need a parachute to skydive—unless you want to do it twice.” Thus advised the bumper sticker on the car just ahead as I waited for the light to change. What a humorous and exaggerated paraphrase of parental advice offered all of us from earliest days! Extracted from the airborne imagery was the simple truth: don’t tempt the laws of nature; it will turn out badly for you.
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Of course there’s much truth here, but has it ever stopped us from tempting the laws of nature? Or the laws of God? It seems a component of human nature to test boundaries, always pushing a bit farther ahead, always stepping just a few inches over the line. And, to our credit, this inquisitiveness has led to great scientific discoveries, advances in medicine and the overall betterment of the worldwide human community.
Even as we push forward, though, there remain laws of nature that ought to be respected for what they are, barriers whose attempted crossing will cause us harm, sometimes even death. Consider a news account of a man who tempted a law of nature in the name of God. Entitled “'Serpent-Handling' West Virginia Pastor Dies from Snake Bite,” I share an excerpt:
“A ‘serpent-handling’ West Virginia pastor died after his rattlesnake bit him during a church ritual, just as the man had apparently watched a snake kill his father years before. Pentecostal pastor Mark Wolford, 44, [wrote on his Facebook homepage], ‘I am looking for a great time this Sunday. It is going to be a homecoming like the old days. Good 'ole raised in the holler, Holy Ghost-filled [with] speaking in tongues.’ Thirty minutes into the outdoor service, Wolford passed around a poisonous timber rattlesnake, which eventually bit him. Wolford was taken to a hospital where he later died.
“Snake-handlers point to scripture as evidence that God calls them to engage in such a practice to show their faith in him. Mark 16:17-18 reads, ‘These signs shall follow them that believe: In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues. They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.’
“Wolford [had earlier said] that he is carrying on the tradition of his ancestors by engaging in snake handling. ‘Anybody can do it that believes. This is a sign to show people that God has the power.’ Wolford watched his own father die at the age of 39 after a rattlesnake bit him during a similar service.” (ABC News, May 30, 2012)
“You don’t need a parachute to skydive—unless you want to do it twice.” Also, don’t handle poisonous snakes unless you want to get bitten and perhaps die. This, too, is a fairly obvious law of nature. God made the rattler’s poison that the snake might defend itself from predators—and also Appalachian Pentecostal preachers intent on testing God! I mean, the gospels also say faith can move mountains, but has anyone done it yet?
In the gospel passage we hear today, “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” (Matthew 4:1) Of course, Jesus wins, but the devil is not yet done with him. He promises to return another day. And, I dare to say, that day is today—and yesterday and also tomorrow.
It’s a given that temptation chases us all. Whether one attributes it to the devil, to frail human weakness or even blames one’s overbearing parents, still, temptation chases us all. And it’ll do so until it’s chased right into the grave. The sort of temptation I speak of is that which attempts to stifle—ideally, to kill—the divine life that burns within. Created in the divine image, it’s our life-long challenge to nourish to fruition the seed of holiness (wholeness) placed within us by God.
As Lent begins once again, let us courageously battle the temptations that pull us away from the fullness of life God desires for each of us. First, let us live unmasked lives. If the face we always show the world is a mask, someday there will be nothing beneath it. We will eventually forget who we really are. Second, let us create our own dreams. The greatest challenge in life is discovering who we are; the second greatest is being happy with what we find. Third, let us avoid negative company, freeing ourselves to keep the company of compassion instead of anger, generosity instead of greed, and patience instead of anxiety. Fourth, let us not attempt to micromanage every little thing. Life should be touched, not strangled. Sometimes we’ve got to relax and let life happen without incessant worry and micromanagement. Fifth, let us not settle for less than we deserve. Sometimes we have to get knocked down lower than we have ever been in order to stand up taller than we ever have before. Sometimes our eyes need to be washed by our tears so we can see the possibilities in front of us with a clearer vision again. Sixth, let us not be lazy and wishy-washy. The world doesn’t owe us anything; rather, we owe the world something. Let us nourish backbones, not wishbones. (Paraphrased from “10 Choices you will regret in 10 Years,” broccolicity.com, August 7, 2013)
“You don’t need a parachute to skydive—unless you want to do it twice.” While it would be easy to fall from the heavens, striking earth in a deadly SPLAT, this Lent, let us make the reverse journey, earth toward heaven. It promises far more reward and the safest possible landing.