Friday, February 20, 2015

Resisting Temptation - A Homily for the First Sunday of Lent

The Reverend Kyle L. Doustou
First Sunday of Lent – Year B

February 22, 2015
Resisting Temptation

Have you ever gone on a diet? As soon as I entered my mid-twenties it seems like all I have to do is smell a cupcake and I instantly gain 5 pounds, so needless to say diets are a recurring part of my life…and I absolutely hate them. The first week or so is always the worst. Your senses are heightened and you can smell a loaf of bread or a piece of cheesecake a mile away. The memories of how good ice cream tastes flood your mind and you wake up in the middle of the night ready to give one of your kidneys for a candy bar. The non-dieters in your life seem to wish you nothing but pain and misery as they nonchalantly help themselves to a second portion of pasta or another piece of pie as you look down at your celery wishing it were a cheeseburger. It takes all of your energy and all of your focus to block out the voice that seems to be saying, “Just one bite…go ahead…you deserve it…” With a firm resolve and eyes set on the goal, that voice can be overcome…but all too often the voice is just too enticing, too promising, and you give in. The whole bag of potato chips or the entire box of cookies disappears in 3 minutes tops, and you’re soon left with mounds of regret and guilt. Why didn’t you just say no!? The diet’s shot now…your willpower is gone and you end up gaining the 10 pounds you were supposed to lose.

It’s definitely a superficial example, but our struggle with dieting, or rather our propensity to struggle with it, is just another indication of our deeper struggle with temptation. If our struggles were limited to a bit of over-indulgence when we’re simply trying to lose weight, I’d probably say that we shouldn't lose too much sleep over it, but we all know it goes much deeper than that. Part of the human condition, which includes the lingering and on-going effects of original sin, is that we suffer from a two-fold disease…a darkened intellect and a weakened will. By a darkened intellect, I’m referring to the difficulty that we have often have in both knowing and understanding what is good in general and what is good for us in particular. We spend years trying to teach our children right from wrong, good from evil, and sometimes we want to just hit our heads up against the wall because they just don’t seem to “get it.” But let’s not kid ourselves…this isn’t magically cured with adulthood. We all fight an up-hill battle all our lives trying to figure out what we should do, what the good thing is to do, in any given circumstance. However, even if we are successful…even if we have learned well from our parents, studied the moral teachings of the Church, and have come to know and appreciate what is truly and really good for us, we also suffer from a weakened will. It’s one thing to know what the right thing to do is…it’s another thing to actually do it. Before we actually do anything, we have to will it…the idea has to become a choice, and this is where most of us really get into trouble. We know, for instance, that dieting and eating healthy is something that we should do…but actually choosing it is difficult. Our struggle with this is a direct result of original sin, and though we might advance in wisdom and grow stronger in our willpower, we will not be able to overcome this struggle apart from God’s grace.

In our Gospel today, Jesus Himself enters into the midst of this struggle of ours. Though He is God-in-the-flesh and can both know and choose the good perfectly, He allows Himself to enter into the miserable experience of the struggle between good and evil. Though Mark’s Gospel does not articulate the events explicitly, we know from the Gospels of Luke and Matthew that the Devil tempted our Lord in three distinct ways: first, with comfort, by suggesting that Jesus forego His fasting by simply turning stones into bread and indulging himself in a wild feeding frenzy; second, with success, by suggesting that Jesus haphazardly throw Himself from the pinnacle of the Temple just to show the world that He could survive the fall without a scratch; and third, with power and idolatry, by offering Jesus all the kingdoms of the world if He would just fall down and worship Satan. Our Lord allowed Himself to undergo temptation in order to truly be present to us in our own struggle. He Who was so terribly assaulted by the Devil in the desert is there to strengthen us, in His love, as we ourselves are tempted…as we feel the urge to sin, as we are drawn deep down in our guts toward the Devil’s empty promises, as we feel the utter angst that is caused by desiring something that is not God. And in combating the Devil’s temptations, in arising victorious from that desert, Jesus shows us that victory is capable only by having recourse to God Himself. He didn't argue with the Devil…He didn’t try to use logic and reason His way around the temptations…He didn't listen to a self-help tape or control His breathing in order to find His inner strength – He appealed to and took solace in the power of God. If we are ever going to become victorious in our pursuit of good and our avoidance of evil, in our love for God and our disdain for sin, then we must take refuge in God’s grace. We ourselves can grow in natural virtue, to be certain, but that will not win the battle for us. Only God’s grace, which we choose to cooperate with, can make us victors in the face of temptation.

At the same time, relying on God’s grace, we need to get smart about what’s going on with temptation, or we won’t even recognize it in time to turn to God for help. There are three sources of temptation: the flesh, the world, and the Devil. Temptations arising from the flesh are those that come from within…these are a direct result of our concupiscence and our desire for pleasure. Inordinate desires for sex, food, and drink will constantly be a source of temptation to sin for the person who has not grown strong in God’s grace. These are powerful urges and must be tempered by prayer and mortification. Temptations arising from the world are those that come from our surroundings…they come from our relationships, jobs, neighborhoods, televisions, computers, and so on. We are pulled towards sin by the false promises the popular spirit of the world is offering on any given day – fornication, adultery, pornography, contraception, abortion, gossip, slander, theft, idolatry, debauchery, etc. These are powerful allurements that must be combated by prudence and avoidance. And finally, temptations arising from the Devil, as our Lord Himself experienced, are the most heinous and dangerous of all, because he knows us well and he knows our weaknesses. He’ll allow or cause horrible things to happen to us, tempting us to despair of God’s mercy and to doubt His goodness. And he’ll continue to lie to us, convincing us that the flesh and the world have everything to offer us and, when we fall, he’ll viciously accuse us and leave us to wallow in shame. The devil’s temptations can only be combated by trusting solely and completely and totally in the power of Jesus Christ.

During this holy season of Lent, the Church invites us to engage in the threefold practice of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving so that we might strengthen ourselves, with God’s grace, against all temptations and the power of sin. Let us be very serious about our penitential observances, especially in these early days of Lent...if done properly, they will help us enormously to reject the flesh, the world, and the Devil - to avoid sin and to turn to God more fully. Today, in this Holy Mass, we pray for an outpouring of this grace so that, as we prayed in our Collect, we may truly grow in our understanding of the riches hidden in Christ and by worthy conduct pursue their effects.  

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Remember that you are dust...A Homily for Ash Wednesday

The Reverend Kyle L. Doustou

Ash Wednesday
February 18, 2015

A year ago they were shipped to Caribou in large burlap sacks. Harvested from a farm in south Texas, they arrived lush and bright. Some came as large, majestic fans…others as small cut strips. We bedecked the sanctuary with them and in a burst of exultant praise, we waved them about as we sang Hosanna to the Son of David! They were sprinkled with holy water, showered with God’s grace just as they had been showered by the tropical rains, and then we brought them home…placing them behind our crucifixes and religious pictures. But it did not take long them for them to lose their lushness. The moisture left them and they dried out, going from a brilliant green to a pale yellow. What had once been a great symbol of victory, triumph, and peace quickly became a shriveled up sign of our own mortality. And now, having been thrown into the fire, they have been reduced to dust…to ash. Sic transit gloria mundi…thus passes the glory of the world.

Last year’s palm branches have become this year’s ashes…in the words of King David in the Second Book of Samuel: “how the mighty have fallen.” How great and haughty was the palm branch on that glorious day, when Christ was welcomed into Jerusalem as a king. Regal and splendid in form, the people chose it over other plants to hail Him. It was raised high for all to see; the envy of the surrounding fauna. But despite its moment of splendor, what had been raised up would be cast down. The palm would be laid on the ground to be trampled underfoot and then left to rot. It had been plucked from its tree, its life source, all for a moment’s glory…and while the other, lesser plants continued to grow and flourish, the palm’s life was over. What a timely and poignant symbol of the fate that awaits us all. Though we accomplish mighty and wonderful things…though we attain great beauty and advance in much wisdom…though we be lauded and praised by others and held up in esteem before all…though we become all things to all people, we, like the palm branch, are but dust – and to dust we shall return.

"Remember, man, that you are dust and to dust you shall return."
Today is Ash Wednesday…a day when Catholics from all over the world flock to their churches to receive the imposition of blessed ashes on their heads as a sign and symbol of their faith in Christ and their intention to enter into Lent with a penitential spirit. It is an act steeped in thousands of years of history…from the early days of the Old Testament people imposed ashes on themselves as a symbol of their grief and sorrow for sin and in the early centuries of the Christendom ashes were imposed on penitents prior to receiving the Sacrament of Penance. This practice continues in our own time, on the day when the Church enters into the penitential season of Lent. We don ashes for the day, recognizing that we are indeed sinners, and reminding ourselves that the wage for our sin is death. The deathly remains of last year’s palm branches are smeared on our heads and we face our own mortality as we hear it said, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

Such an external sign of penance, however, brings with it the danger of using it for an ulterior purpose. In the time of Jesus, the falsely humble, the hypocrites, would engage in austere penitential practices like the donning of ashes in order to draw attention to themselves and to project the appearance of a truly religious spirit. Our Lord condemns this mentality in our Gospel today, and He sternly warns us against it. In receiving ashes today, we should not accept them as an opportunity to display our religiosity or to give the appearance of humility…we should accept them as a sign of what we are. We are the palm branch, so eager to make something great of ourselves, but really nothing more than ash.

But there’s a greater mystery occurring on this Ash Wednesday…a mystery that is greater than our own sinfulness and our own mortality. These ashes we receive, the sign of death that they are, will be smeared on our foreheads in the form of a cross. Through His own suffering, through His own death, through His Cross, Christ our Lord brings life to what was dead. We, like the palm branch, may be dust and ash, shriveling up under the weight of our own sin, but by clinging to Christ and seeking refuge in His Cross, He promises to us the gift of immortality…life in the celestial kingdom of heaven.

For the next forty days we will be engaging in acts of penance, particularly marked by prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. As we muddle our way through Lent, there will be ups and downs…successes and failures in each of these areas. Don’t get too bogged down trying to have a “good Lent.” Just remember the ashes from today…remember who you are and, more importantly, who can you become through the power of the Cross. If the ashes don’t call you to deeper life in Christ, then they’re nothing more than the remains of last year’s palm branches. But if you heed their call and turn to Christ with all your heart, then they can be the sign of the beginning of your life, not the symbol of its end.