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Lent: Time to strengthen our spiritual muscles

Archbishop Wenski's homily on the first Sunday of Lent 2018

Archbishop Thomas Wenski preached this homily at a vigil Mass for the first Sunday of Lent, Feb. 17, 2018, at the Ocean Reef Club in Key Largo, at an interdenominational chapel that serves the various faiths of the community.

How many times have we prayed the Lord’s Prayer? Every time we pray the Our Father we say, “Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.” Some other translations have it “and subject us not to the trial.” You might have heard that a few weeks ago Pope Francis suggested that we look for a better translation – because it sounds like we’re saying that God is setting us up to fail by sending temptations our way. And that’s not what the Lord’s Prayer is really saying.

So what it is that we are praying for? When we pray that God will protect us in the time of temptation and deliver us from the time of trail, we are asking God to be with us when we face the devil himself. (And didn’t we face the devil himself in Parkland this past Wednesday when a broken and sick young man killed 17 and wounded another 17 innocent kids? This is a trial not only for the parents and other family members who have lost loved ones – it is a trial for all of us. We are saddened, we are angry, we are horrified – and some are indeed tempted to despair of God and to despair of man, the creature he made in his own image and likeness.)

So, we pray, “Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.” There are all sorts of temptations – of varying kinds and intensities. Some temptations of the flesh; others of the spirit; but all involve a “testing” or “trial”. And what is tested is our spiritual resolve – our spiritual muscles, if you will. We are always to resolve to do good and to avoid evil. But if our willpower is weak and flabby, if our mind or intellect is clouded or confused so that it doesn’t recognize what is good, then we will be a pushover for the devil.

We have to remember that the devil always comes to us in disguise – he is always disguised as something or someone that is good. That’s the way the devil works, he takes something good and corrupts it; he takes goodness and then devalues it, debases it, corrupts it.

Out in the desert the temptations that the devil put to Jesus were temptations that called him to corrupt the good, to compromise his mission and thereby subvert his Father’s purposes. And aren’t these the temptations that we confront in our lives. No, the devil doesn’t whisper into our ears. He doesn’t have to try to seduce us; the culture that surrounds us does the job for him.

What is the culture – what is the world – saying to us? It suggests that we can compromise with evil: follow the easy way, take the path of least resistance. “Everybody is doing it – whatever the “it” may be, so why can’t we?, we whine. The devil wants us to feel sorry for ourselves, to think of ourselves as victims of an autocratic authority and to scream about their unfairness, because “everybody is doing it.” Why should we, Catholics, be so backward…so different. But compromising with evil is a slippery, slippery slope.

Another ruse of the devil – and this is going full steam today – is to redefine sin. We are led to believe that we can change the definition of something that is wrong into something that appears to be okay.

Jesus was tempted – he was like us in all things but sin. He experienced being alone and abandoned – so do we; he had his desert experience, and we have ours. He knew temptations and trials just as we know them.

It is important to remember being tempted is not a sin, giving in to the temptation is what the sin is. One might have a disposition, a tendency – we might even call it an “orientation” to be prideful, or gluttonous, or impatient. We have to struggle with those dispositions, those tendencies, and those “orientations” so as not to sin, to maintain our resolve to do good and avoid evil. Life is a struggle; we are on a battlefield and the stakes are high. And so, when we pray: “Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil” we are asking God to be with us when we face the devil himself.

And so we begin Lent, a time of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, a time to strengthen our spiritual muscles. We are to deny ourselves, to say “no” to ourselves – but not just for the sake of denying ourselves. This is not about some kind of spiritual masochism; rather it is about a spiritual liberation. We say “no” to ourselves so that we can be free to say “yes” to God and to neighbor.

We heard the first words of Jesus recorded in the Gospel according to St. Mark: “The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the Gospel.” Repent means to stay in the company of the one who loves us. Keep walking with Jesus! To do that, the Gospel challenges us to change our minds about the way we think, to change our hearts about the Gospel we ignore and to change our ways about habits of sin. Lent reminds us that we must begin again to confront the enemy within us.

As Catholic Christians, our life’s task is not to change the Gospel to accommodate it to our easy compromises with the culture around us. Our life’s task is to allow the Gospel to change us. I like to say that we call ourselves practicing Catholics because this life is our one-time chance to keep practicing the faith until we get it right. And so during Lent, we seek healing and mercy. We ask God to forgive our sins, not to bless them.

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