Sermons

March 5: First Sunday of Lent

“Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards was hungry.” Matthew 4:1-11.

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We are at the beginning of our Lenten journey with the Lord, preparing ourselves for the light and the blessed waters of Easter.

We hear about Jesus in the desert, and like us, he would have need for food, drink – the nourishment of body and spirit.

According to some translations he is “tempted” three-times; other translations use the term “tested.” This word may be more apt. We too are tested in life.

In the proximity of food or drink, Jesus is tested when the personal, spiritual hungers of so many, affected him deeply.

When his message could call for greater spectacle, almost like a circus high-wire act, his was the humble task of healing and forgiveness, heart to heart, person to person.

Instead of seeking honors or homage, Jesus’s simple way of life demanded that the first is last, and the last first.

All these were tests of his integrity and mission, and in these actions before the devil, we too are to focus on Christ, and make his pattern of life, our pattern in order to enter more fully into death and life; the direction of our own Lenten journey.

J.R. Tolkien, whose creative literary imagination created the “Lord of the Rings” — this saga was deeply imbued with allegories of quests, challenges, tests, and temptations.

He writes: “It does not do you any good to leave a dragon out of your calculations, if you live near him.”

The point here is that if you live near a dragon, watch out, be prepared, and deal with it.

Sometimes the dragon comes in the form of abuse, alcohol, drugs, power, and the list goes on. At moments of temptation, Jesus’s words of serving God alone, makes sense.

Our gospel passage concludes with this interesting detail, “Then, the devil left him and, behold angels came and ministered to him.”

Often enough we need an army of Guardian Angels to help defeat these dragons for the purpose of living in the light of love and reconciliation.

So be prepared, stay on guard that during this our Lenten season of prayers and practices — may these actions of ours help to meet head on the tests that we face us in life.

Here are three observations about Guardian Angels, that may be worth considering.

First, in this age of anxiety, when our political emotions concerning national security have citizens on edge, I came across an interesting historical parallel coming as it does from Southern Italy, the land of my grandparents.

Here, Saint Michael the Archangel played a pivotal role across the centuries in Italy. You might say he’s the patron saint of “homeland security” for the Italian state. The devotion to Saint Michael came from the Gargano peninsula where there is an historic monastery on the Adriatic Sea.

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You may recall that prior to the Vatican II liturgical changes, the prayer to Saint Michael was recited at the conclusion of most Masses. These are the memorable opening lines: “Saint Michael defend us in battle. Be our protector against the wickedness and snares of the devil.” I have given you only a few sentences of what was a much longer prayer, edited by Pope Leo XII in 1906.

During the middle ages, monks from Mont San Michele in Normandy traveled down to their monastery in Italy, and planted the devotion on Italian soil.

The statue of St. Michael conquering the devil has a particular reference to the battle by Christians defending against the 20,000 Ottoman Turks who in 1480 brutally attacked seaports towns of Southern Italy. The 800 killed in the port city of Otranto are considered martyrs, and were canonized by Pope Francis in May of 2013.

Consequently, the names of “Michael” or “Angelo” remain among popular baptismal names for men and women. And this gesture suggests a deep resonance of how we call upon angels to protect to us throughout life.

Here’s a second brief observation about angels battling with the devil of warfare. It comes from the recent film “Hacksaw Ridge” by Mel Gibson.

His World War II film about the Battle of Okinawa recounts the story of Army Corporal Desmond Doss, a Seventh-day Adventist and “conscientious objector” who, as an unarmed medic, faced the test of caring for the dead and wounded, in one of the bloodiest battles.

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If “war is hell,” Doss, played by the British/American actor Andrew Garfield, is among the Guardian Angels trying desperately to hold on to life. Film critics claim this is one of the most gruesome anti-war films ever made.

Doss faced stiff resistance even from his own American soldiers because of his religious beliefs including his adherence not working on the Sabbath. In the end, because of his selfless valor, Desmond Doss saved the lives of servicemen on the battlefield, both Americans as well as a few of the Japanese soldiers.

President Truman awarded Desmond Doss the Medal of Honor, the first “conscientious objector” to receive such an honor. Desmond Doss died in 2006.

We too can become Guardian Angels, and here’s my third observation coming from the comments of Pope Francis. He tell us how we can keep an eye out for those who are poor, marginalized, and the homeless, living on the streets.

Pope Francis, in a recent magazine interview with the Milan-based Scarp de’Tenis (Tennis Shoes), a publication about the homeless population, the holy father stated that it is better to give to the beggar on the street.

He added that is is without regard to how she or he would use the money, even if it were for a glass of wine. When we encounter the homeless, as Christians we must “give without worry” and preserve their dignity, heart to heart, person to person.

In today’s NY Times an editorial commends the pope for this sentiment; at a time when others treat these brothers and sisters of ours so harshly, you too can be a Guardian Angel.

This Lent, let’s keep the focus on Jesus. The “Anima Christi” is among the most meditative prayers about Christ’s love for us.

“Soul of Christ, sanctify me.

Body of Christ, save me.

Blood of Christ, inebriate me.

Passion of Christ, strengthen me.

O good Jesus, hear me.

Within your wounds hide me.

Do not permit me to part from you.

From spiteful enemies protect me.

In the hour of my death call me.

And bid me come to you.

That with your saints, I may praise you.

In the lifetime of lifetimes.

So be it.”

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