"Life is fragile; handle it with prayer!"
Decades ago -- perhaps as long ago as the 1970's-- these inspirational words graced posters, framed photos and greeting cards. Even today, if you search for these words
on the internet, similar products surface, along with a book bearing the same title. Life has always been fragile, that is, we can only be certain of the present moment, there is no guarantee of another moment, let alone a tomorrow. The problem is that many of us live as though we are entitled to tomorrow. We assume that we can carry on with our way of life -- eating, drinking, making merry, climbing the career ladder, acquiring credentials, accomplishing impressive goals, buying, selling, investing, making ourselves look good, finding a few bargains here and there, being "liked" on social media ....
But for what?
"You can't take it with you,"
that life is fragile and that, to use another
cliché, we should live every day as though it is our last. The poor, of course, have no illusions about the fragility of life; nor do those living in war zones, nor the countless displaced people seeking refuge in other countries. The
however, strikes at rich and poor alike. While the Black Death (1347-1351) was spread by fleas on rat-infested merchant ships, and while the deadly Spanish Flu of 1918 was spread partially by the movement of troops in combat zones, the
is making its way around the world via train, plane and cruise ship!
Pandemics bring out the best and the worst in us. From China to Italy, from Iran to Japan, from South Korea to the United States, medical teams are doing their best to save lives, even at the risk of being exposed to the virus themselves. Scientists are working tirelessly to find a vaccine while government agencies are scrambling to find ways of curtailing the virus. On the other hand, fear has led to scapegoating and racially-based violence, especially towards those of Chinese origin or those who may
Chinese, even if they have never visited China in their lives. Here in the U.S. Chinese restaurants are feeling the impact, along with commercial areas with high Chinese density -- Chicago's China Town, for example.
Lent is a time for self-assessment and transformation. Fear has no place in the spiritual life. Rather, we are called to recognize that kindness, compassion and generosity --along with prayer-- are the tools for spiritual survival. We can live like the living dead, locking ourselves behind closed doors, or we can reach out to our neighbors, knowing that all are precious in God's eyes.
Then the devil took him up to a very high mountain,
and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in their magnificence,
and he said to him, "All these I shall give to you,
if you will prostrate yourself and worship me.”
At this, Jesus said to him,
“Get away, Satan!
It is written: The Lord, your God, shall you worship
and him alone shall you serve.”
Then the devil left him and, behold,
angels came and ministered to him.
There are three locations in the Gospel for the First Sunday in Lent: the desert, the parapet of the Temple, and the summit of a high mountain. Each location is the site of one of three temptations that Jesus has to face before embarking on his public ministry; his response to each temptation defines his self-identity, his relationship with God, and his vision and mission.
The desert is the place of solitude, aridity, deprivation, discomfort and sometimes fear. When we enter into the desert, whether because of life's circumstances or intentionally, it is easy to feel that we are all alone, or that God has abandoned us. If we are fasting from multi-tasking, social media addiction, over-eating or other negative behaviors, then we have to face ourselves. Instead of reaching for a comfort snack or the mind-numbing presence of our mobile phones, we allow ourselves to experience that radical emptiness, that aching hunger, that restless seeking that only God can satisfy. By refusing to turn stones to bread, Jesus rejects the "quick fix," the "magical solution," and the reliance on his own power over that of fidelity to his mission.
THE PARAPET OF THE TEMPLE
The parapet of the Temple is not just a "high place," but it represents institutionalized religion -- the pinnacle of spiritual achievement, hierarchical status, and self-deification. When we live as though we are in control of our destinies, answerable to no one but ourselves, and when we pray,
"My will be done,"
rather than seeking God's will for us, then we are standing on the edge of the Temple parapet. Jesus refuses to put God to the test. His relationship with God is not based on whether or not he experiences angelic intervention but on his love for God and God's love for him. He does not need a "sign" to know that God is with him.
THE MOUNTAIN SUMMIT
While mountains often lead us to a sense of awe over the grandeur of creation, this mountain experience presents the temptation of power -- the desire to rule over others to enhance our own status and prosperity. On top of the mountain, we can dominate our inferiors, impose our will over lesser mortals, crush opposition, ignore other's greater wisdom, and demand allegiance. Jesus cannot be "bought." For him, all the kingdoms of this world are nothing in comparison to the Kingdom of God. He will not bow down to Satan at any price, and so Temptation flees.
Each of the three temptations tricks us into imagining that we are the center of the universe and that if we do what is convenient (turning stones to bread), or what proves our superiority (jumping from the Temple parapet) or what makes us powerful (bending to Satan to acquire the kingdoms of this world), we will be like God. Happily, as long as we remember that we are made in the image and likeness of God and that we breathe the Divine Breath, we are safe from such egotistical illusions.