An Opportunity to Grow

I love opportunities.  For the past nine years, I’ve been doing home fitness programs and always get excited about doing a 90-day program either to improve my endurance, build muscle, or improve athleticism.  We all love opportunities.  That’s why when people ask us how we’re doing, we tell them about our new opportunities, “I’ve just started reading a new book!”  “I signed up for a course,”  “I’m starting a diet,” or, “I joined this group at my church.”   Opportunities give us a chance to grow and improve.  I’ve mentioned before how many people go through the same problems every year: Their year starts out okay, then they have a crisis, have a good cry, then things go back to normal.  The following year, they go through the same crisis, get overwhelmed, have a breakdown, call a friend, and then recover.  This will happen the following year because they’re not responding to the opportunities God is giving them.

[Listen to Fr. Justin’s homily here.]

The First Reading is about the greatest failed opportunity, and the Gospel is about redeeming what had been lost.  The First Reading is about Adam and Eve being tempted by the devil to disobey and not trust God the Father.  It says, “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate” (Gen 3:6).

The temptation is broken down into three deceptions: The tree is ‘good for food,’ ‘a delight to the eyes,’ and ‘to be desired to make one wise.’  These three deceptions are related to what St. John writes in the New Testament: “For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, is not of the Father” (1 Jn 2:16).  Most theologians refer to these vices as lust, greed, and pride.

1) Lust means disordered sexual desire, where we use people sexually, taking instead of giving, objectifying instead of loving people.  We’ve discussed this before: Men typically use love to get sex, while women use sex to get love—both are sinful.  But lust can also mean more generally any disordered search for pleasure (Cf. CCC 377).  Pleasure is good!  God gave us pleasure to direct us to good things and to delight in them.  However, when we seek the pleasure of eating apart from nourishment, we become gluttonous and unhealthy; when priests do this they become monsignors.  When we seek the pleasure of buying things all the time, we become wasteful and superficial.  When we get messages, likes, or watch porn on our phone, we get dopamine hits in our brain, and so we become limited spiritually, emotionally, physically, and relationally.

2) Greed means coveting things we don’t have, always wanting to possess more.  Related to this is envy: When we envy people’s homes, their lives, the way they look, this saps our gratitude.  When we forget the good things we already have, we lose our happiness!

3) Pride is the worst because it detaches us from reality.  Rather than enjoying the reality of being God’s children with our strengths and weaknesses, we’re insecure, full of anxiety, always trying to prove ourselves, and find our greatest happiness in competing.

Jesus overcomes these three temptations in the Gospel.  “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Mt 4:1).  He’s going to prepare for His mission with 40 days of prayer and fasting.  To dissuade Him, first, the devil says, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread,” (Mt 4:3) in other words, break your fast and preparation—this is the lust of the flesh and a disordered desire for pleasure.  Jesus responds, “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Mt 4:4).  This means there are more important priorities in life than our body (Curtis Mitch & Edward Sri, Matthew in Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture, 75).

If we want to overcome those repeated annual problems, we need to sacrifice our desire for immediate pleasure to something higher.  Happiness and discipline are proportionate: The happiest people we know are always the most disciplined.  Is there something more we desire this year, something more important that God has put on our heart for this year, or are we going to live by bread alone?

Second, “Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his Angels concerning you’” (Mt 4:6), in other words, disordered pride: Make God serve you in the way you want.  Jesus answers, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test” (Mt 4:7).  Here Jesus is quoting the Old Testament (Dt 6:16) when the Hebrew people were in the desert and, even though they saw God provide for them, they lost trust and stopped believing in Him, and so they tested Him, asking Him to prove that He was with them, when He already had.

We’re all tempted to do the same when we don’t feel God’s presence.  When we don’t feel God, we’re not as faithful to daily prayer, going to the chapel, or participating in the parish.  So we ask God to do what we want: Make Himself known, when He’s already with us—that’s pride.  But Jesus doesn’t force His Father’s hand; He accepts that His Father is with Him and doesn’t test Him.

Third, “The devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me’” (Mt 4:8-9).  This is lust of the eyes, greed.

Jesus says to the devil, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him” (Mt 4:10).  Many of us have experienced the peace, joy, and satisfaction that God alone gives.  Yet, we’re always tempted back to getting cheap happiness.  Jesus is telling us: If we love Him first, everything else will fall into place.

So here are two opportunities to grow: 1) Jesus is our example.  Every Lent when I hear that Jesus went into the desert to fast for 40 days and 40 nights, I want to imitate Him.  I want to defeat the problems in my life.  I love that idea of simplifying my life and getting away from distractions.

We’re starting a new season today called Loving the Liturgy, and I want to explain more about the liturgy so you learn to love it.  Liturgy means the public worship of the Church (Fr. Peter Stravinskas, Catholic Encyclopedia, 596).  The Rosary, Stations of the Cross, reading the Bible are devotions, done by individuals or groups.  The liturgy is principally the Mass and sacraments, which are the official prayer of the whole Church, the Body of Christ.

Please have a look at this chart of the liturgical year:

I want you to begin to sense the liturgical year and feel what God’s offering us in each season.  With Advent, He’s offering us preparation; with Christmas, joy; with Ordinary Time, stability.  Stability is something on which we need to work later because one difficulty I’m seeing is that most of us are going up and down in our faith, and we need to reach a certain maturity.  Easter is a time for triumph and mission.

Every calendar tells us when to rest, work, and celebrate.  However, the Church’s liturgical calendar tells us that Lent is a time to fast.  Isn’t that interesting?  Our civic calendar has days off and celebrations which is good because rest is good, but it has no fasts, which makes us too comfortable and weak.

When we celebrate Mass during Lent, we want an experience of simplicity and barrenness; we want to strip away the excess, cut away the noise, and reflect, and ask the Holy Spirit for insight.  As last year, we’re not going to sing a recessional hymn, but we’re all going to leave the church in silence and resist the temptation to talk until we’re outside the door.  We’re processing in and out from the side entrance, which changes our focus (It also allows me to greet people who normally avoid me by using the side door).  In addition, we’re not playing the organ, so that our singing is more sober.  We’re going to remove the incense and the flowers, and use purple as our colour because it’s the colour of penitence, turning away from sin.  You’ll notice that the altar’s been simplified without the silver candlesticks, and a more prominent crucifix.

2) Jesus will live His desert victory in us.  The Church teaches that “Christ enables us to live in him all that he himself lived, and he lives it in us…  He enables us as the members of his Body to share in what he lived” (CCC 521).  This teaching is abstract but powerful.  For example, the love with which Jesus refused the devil while He was in the desert is offered to us; Jesus will actually give us that same strength so that we can overcome our temptations.  He actually wants to live His desert victory in our lives (See also Sacrosanctum Concilium, 102,3).

And this works for every event of Jesus’ life, what we call ‘mysteries.’  When Jesus died on the Cross, the obedience that He lived on that Cross is offered to us, so that we can live His obedience and His Cross in our lives.  The joy that He experienced in His Resurrection is offered to us so that we can live His Resurrection.

Once you start to get a hang of this kind of union with Jesus, you start realizing that He’s actually living in us all day.  Because we’re baptized, we’re joined with Him, and we can draw on whatever virtue of His we need.  Do I need more patience?  “Jesus, give me the patience You had when You were frustrated with the apostles.”  Do I need more physical strength?  “Jesus, give me the strength You had when You were carrying the Cross.”

Start thinking about what you need.  The traditional three forms of Lenten penance are prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.  Prayer will combat our pride, fasting will fight the lust of the flesh, and almsgiving (greater generosity with our time, treasure, and talent) will combat our greed.

Write them down: Is it some daily Masses, getting to the chapel, the Rosary, Tuesday night Stations of the Cross, spiritual reading, buying a book for Lent?  Is it doing a spiritual program like Exodus 90 to overcome lust, women joining Fiat 90 to grow, men joining the E5 program to fast once a month on bread and water for their wives or girlfriends?  Is it giving money to the poor and needy, serving in the parish?

For today, just focus on what desire God has put into our hearts, and have a devout conversation with someone about it.  Where do you deeply desire to grow?

Jesus has defeated the devil and wants to live that victory in us.  We have an opportunity to grow with Jesus.

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