Lord we beseech thee, grant thy people grace to withstand the temptations of the world, the flesh and the devil; and with pure hearts and minds to follow thee.(Collect Trinity XVIII)
In the Gospel for Trinity XVII you and I were advised by our Master to take the lowest seats in the community of men, spiritual spaces of little interest to people of the world, and a disposition or character of lowliness and humility in an effort to better situate ourselves in relation to God’s Grace. What our Lord meant to teach us was that our place in relation to Him, expressed through the image of the Wedding Feast, is always His to give. And, more than this, that He gives not to those who work and think that they have earned it, but rather to those who think themselves unworthy of it. God alone is above all; God alone provides; God alone can move man out of the lowliness of alienation and division from things Divine and up into the presence of His Eternal Love. Yet he must be full of all humility and know that he can never deserve, merit, or earn anything but just punishment for his offences against the most High God. So we were encouraged to wait upon the Divine condescension of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ, and thus found ourselves experiencing one element in the story of God’s love for us.
This week we continue to pray that our hearts and minds might be open to the continuation of God’s story, the story of Incarnational love in the world that He has made and longs to redeem and save. What this means is that just as God’s story was told long ago in the earthly life of Jesus Christ, so too should the story continue to be read in the hearts and minds of you and me. Through the Holy Spirit you and I are meant to become Sons and Daughters of God the Father –His children, the brothers and sisters of Jesus –members of His Mystical Body, and those whose lives communicate and tell the story of God’s redemptive work in the world. So, to that end today we pray that we might be granted Grace to withstand the temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil, and with pure hearts and minds to follow…the only God. (Idem)
But what are these temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil and how are we meant to respond to them? First, there is the temptation to be drawn away from the soul’s good and into the world. The world tempts us with the possibilities of becoming a part of another story. And that story is one of man’s journey into a far country well removed from the governance, protection, love, and care of God. St. Thomas says that the world tempts us either by attaching us to it in prosperity, or by filling us with fear of adversity. (T.A.:The Creed, What is Faith?) The world is what is closest to our senses, and thus what provides a natural home from which to write the story of our lives. She promises us the stars and rewards us with the moon. She gives and takes away surreptitiously, treacherously, and abruptly. And yet think about how many men are addicted to her fickle and coquettish manner! She provides an ongoing stream of information about nothing. She invents truths and false gods to distract our minds from the absolute truth of God. She fills our senses with images and sounds that desensitize our hearts from the love of the good. She bombards our lives with corruption and evil to such an extent that they become the norm and habits. And all the while she remains unaccountable, innocent, free, and transcendent. She tells us that nature, physics, biology, anatomy, and physiology alone account for truth. And yet when anyone seeks their verifications and proofs, she insists that we must only believe. Her meaning is relative and so reason and free will are suspect. We believe her because it is easier for slothful minds to blame someone or something rather than to take responsibility for the real cause of their actions. So we are tempted to worship the world as a false god.
In addition there are the temptations that are closer to our passions. We pray that we may resist the temptations of the flesh. And here, of course, we mean not only the alluring objects of carnal concupiscence, but really anyone or anything by which the self or the ego realizes the fulfillment of a good independent of God’s will. And so we find ourselves tempted not only by sexual desire divorced from God’s creative purposes, but into gluttony and drunkenness, and also greed and covetousness. We live in a world of unimaginable creaturely comfort that is only ever a fingertip away from our mind’s seduction by the forces of evil.
Finally there is the temptation to be as God. We pray to resist the temptations of the devil, which is to say that we must resist the temptation to determine what is good and what is evil on our own. This is the sin of the ancient Greek sophists, and of the cultural relativists in our own day. It is a recipe, in the end, for true spiritual anarchy and the end of civilization. For it leads, as Thomas Hobbes said long ago, to a state of war where everyman is at war with every other. Hereby it is manifest that during the time men live without a common Power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called War; and such a war as is of every man against every man. (Leviathan) It is a state into which the devil lures us away from and lasting principles and the permanent things. Here he tries to convince us that life has no meaning. He insists that we can be independent of God and spiritually autonomous. He maintains that God neither loves nor cares because He takes so long to heal, sanctify, and work His redemption into our hearts. Thus, He builds up our resentment and bitterness and so turns us against God and our neighbor.
Against this, we Christians must find the divine inspiration that contravenes and overcomes such madness and irrationality. God has written His story into the life of Jesus Christ and longs to write the same story into our hearts and souls. In Jesus Christ, God has taken on our condition, and from His heart longs to bind us to our Heavenly Father through the Holy Spirit. Christ longs that His story should never end. Christ longs that we all should become respective pages and even chapters in the new Book of Life that He has become. This Book of Life written is meant to be read still in the lives of the redeemed, in the heart of you and of me.
In today’s Gospel we read of a lawyer who tempts Jesus. The lawyer is bright and thinks that he possesses all that is needed to tell God’s story. He asks, Master, which is the great commandment in the law? (St. Matthew xxii. 36) Jesus answers him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neigbour as thyself. (Ibid 37, 38) Jesus seems to give two answers. But in reality He gives one. The point is that God has never ceased to write one story into the hearts of faithful men. This is the one love that is doubly expressed in the life of Jesus Christ. In Jesus Christ we find the story of a love for God that is so complete that it simultaneously translates into love for neighbor. Christ loves God with all of His heart, soul, mind, and strength. The story of the same love is then revealed as the Father’s desire for all men’s salvation. The love of God is the love for man that will love to the point of death, death upon a cross. All that is alive in Christ is God’s love, which will make His death the first step into new life. All that is alive to Christ are those neighbors whom He invites into the death that only He can die. He alone dies perfectly to the world, the flesh, and the devil (Idem), and He will love willing men into His death. Loving God with all of His being enables the Saviour to die to the temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil for us. Loving God with all of His being enables Him to rise up into glorious Resurrection and Ascension. In Christ we can find a story of love that begins and ends with God. In Christ we too can begin to love God so fully and perfectly that we cannot be restrained from loving Him in all others.
Because the double Love that ascends back to the Father now comes down once again through the Holy Spirit to us, we can love God and our neighbor. Hans Urs Von Balthasar describes the spiritual motion in this way:
The Holy Spirit is signified by in Latin by the little word in (Credo in Spiritum) that is, I give myself over, in belief, into the sacred and healing Mystery of the Spirit…Into an incomprehensible Some-One, who is someone other than the Father and the Son, and whose characteristic task will be to work in a divinely free way from within the humanly free Spirit, revealing to our limited minds the depths of [God’s love] that only He has explored…To him, the most delicate, vulnerable, and precious one in God, we must open ourselves up, without defensiveness, without thinking that we know better, without hardening ourselves, so that we may undergo initiation by Him into the Mystery that God is love. (Credo, p. 76)
When we give ourselves over in belief, into the sacred and healing Mystery of the Spirit we begin sense, feel, and ingest the depths of God’s love. Through Him, God makes us the words, sentences, paragraphs, and chapters in the story that will impart His love to all others. This love comprises an habitual dying to sin and rising to righteousness. In us, the world should be able to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest that God’s Word made Flesh is the love that enables us to die to the world, the flesh, and the devil and with pure hearts and minds to follow the only God. In us, they should read what St. John writes: Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another. If we love one another, God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us. Amen.