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First Sunday of Lent - March 10, 2019

This past Wednesday, most of us were marked by dust.  The dust, ash.  The dust is a reminder to us of who we are and whose we are.  It’s an ancient symbol that takes its significance from the stories of our origin in the Book of Genesis:  “then the Lord God formed the man out of the dust of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.”  We may have heard the traditional words as we were marked:  “Remember you are dust, and into dust you will return.”  These words too have their origin in Genesis:  “By the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread, until you return to the ground, from which you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return. (3:19)”  These references to dust book-end the story of humanity’s “perfect” relationship with God, from our creation in God’s own image to our desiring to be other than we are, or from our creation in love to our fall.

I can only imagine the bliss of those first days of humanity.  The story of “perfection” in the Garden of Eden seems more than idyllic.  Everything was wonderful.  Imagine waking up every day to southern California sunshine, always in the mid-seventies, never wanting to anything.  Happy days. Literally.  Every day in paradise another day to be happy.  Perhaps this is why it is so easy for us to want to be happy all the time. People in advertising sell happiness all the time.  And all the time, we’re there, trying to secure it for ourselves.  In all honesty, it would be very difficult to find people who would disagree with the idea that we would be happier if only we had better health, more wealth, or more freedom.  I don’t disagree that I might be happier if this were the case in my life, but I suspect that it’s only part of the picture.  You see, these values are concerned with my physical reality. However, there is also my spiritual reality.  I am more than just a physical, corporeal being.  I am also a spiritual being.

The physical and the spiritual coexist in us.  As Genesis reminds us, we are creatures who are fashioned in the “image and likeness of God”.  It is in this truth that rests our dignity as human beings.  We are a people who know the effects of Original Sin, but who are first, children of Original Blessing.  On this First Sunday of Lent, when we listen to the Lucan narrative of the Temptation of Jesus, we are plunged into the implications of this “co-existence.” I remember reading a column by Fr. Ron Rolheiser a few years ago that spoke about the Temptation of Jesus in terms of the vulnerability we often experience as we live both as spiritual and physical beings.  It is after his Baptism (perfect) that Jesus goes into the desert for a long time.  At his Baptism he heard the words come from heaven:  “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” (Lk 3:22). That Jesus first must deal with temptation suggests Luke is reminding us that we all have to wrestle with the tensions that exist in us because we are both body and soul, we are both physical and spiritual creatures. Rolheiser suggests that the first temptation has the devil tempting Jesus to fill himself with anything.  On the physical level Jesus is hungry, but that hunger for bread is no greater than the hunger he experiences because of the emptiness he feels as part of the human condition.  It prompts us to consider the hungers of our own lives, and to be mindful of the ways in which we seek to satisfy ourselves.  Do we always have to “fill” ourselves, or can we accept that we can be both “hungry” and “blessed” at the same time?

 Rolheiser goes on to suggest that the second temptation tells of the devil promising Jesus human glory.  On the physical level we might think that we have to be “somebody” to make a difference in the world.  But can we accept that we can be quite extraordinary in our ordinariness, that we can be anonymous and still be blessed? Being blessed does not require that we be famous or even popular.

The third temptation, Rolheiser suggest, involves being tempted to think of ourselves as being better than others, able to lord it over them.  On the physical level we might feel that we are better than other people, that we are more significant or more powerful than others.  However, Jesus reminds us that we all have more in common with one another than not.  We are all of us special, and none are more special than others.  Our being blessed does not require that we receive any special treatment that sets us apart from others.

We live with the tensions that come from being both body and spirit.  We both live in this world, and at the same time apart from it.  In the cut and thrust of our lives, we might be tempted to forget that we are, in fact, blessed.  As a matter of our faith, we are a graced people.  This is the reality of who we are, physically and spiritually.  To be marked with dust and ashes is to remind ourselves that this Lent, perhaps, we might grow deeper into this mystery of who we are and whose we are.

 

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