Homily for February 21, 2010

Father Tom’s Homily
1st Sunday of Lent
February 21, 2010

Throughout history people have believed that spirits exist in our midst and sometimes influence human affairs. The scriptures reflect this belief in spirits good and bad that can touch our lives. Many cultures use a broad range of rituals, words, or symbols to ward off attacks from evil spirits. Sometimes people wear amulets as a protection against injury or evil.
In the Mediterranean world the color blue is used as an especially powerful protection against spirits that would harm a person. For this reason, one can see window frames and doors painted blue, or people wear blue clothes or ribbons.
I recall that in Bethlehem, Christian Palestinians often have an image of St. George, the patron saint of Palestine, over the front door of their homes. The Moslem Palestinians often have a written message over the door stating that the inhabitants of the house had made the pilgrimage to Mecca. In these ways the homes receive protection from injury or harm.
From my earliest days I have worn a religious medal and chain around my neck. I suppose it has something to do with receiving spiritual protection. Mostly it’s because my mom reminded her children to wear a scapular or religious medal.

Today’s gospel certainly maintains the presence and power of evil spirits, represented by the evil one called Satan (or the devil). The one who has power over the spirits, good and evil, is Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
In this gospel story Jesus confronts Satan, the leader of evil spirits. We can see that Satan has no power over Jesus. Jesus vanquishes Satan. This story can be a reminder that in the world of good and evil, good is a greater power than evil.

Recall that Jesus began his ministry with his baptism by John the Baptist in the Jordan. At his baptism, a voice from heaven identified Jesus as “my Son, the Beloved – with you I am well pleased.”
After that Jesus went into the wilderness for forty days where he fasted and prayed. The wilderness, the large deserted area east of Jerusalem, was considered the habitat of the spirits. It was there that Jesus was tested by Satan, the Prince of Darkness, who presumes that his presence is more feared and more powerful than any other force.

Satan intends to test this Jesus whom the voice at his baptism declared to be the Beloved Son, in whom God is well pleased. Could that be true, or is it a false claim.
Luke’s account does not report that Jesus was wearing a blue garment or using amulets or special formulas for protection. But Jesus does not go into the wilderness alone. He is impelled and accompanied by the Holy Spirit, who is the greatest opponent of the evil spirit.

In his encounter with Satan, Jesus engages in a sort of Scripture-quoting contest. Three times Jesus is challenged to do something that would make him a displeasing son. Three times Jesus replies with a quote from Scripture to push aside the tempter’s evil advice. In turn Satan too quotes Scripture, but to no avail.
Defeated, Satan left Jesus alone, to wait for another opportunity to challenge and defeat him.
In Luke’s gospel, Satan returns to the scene when he tempted Judas to betray Jesus. In chapter 22, verse 3, Luke’s gospel reads, “Satan entered Judas…”
Up to this point Jesus had mastery over sin and the devils that took possession of persons, over sicknesses of every sort and storms at sea. With his arrest through Judas’ betrayal, Jesus seemed to be defeated by the evil one.
But Satan’s triumph at Calvary was an illusion. It was utterly reversed on Easter Sunday.

In the chapel at the Catholic University in San Salvador there is powerful reminder of a modern story of the clash of evil forces with the Spirit of God. Buried in the sanctuary are the six Jesuit priests who were murdered by a death squad on November 16, 1989. It was a time of defeat and fearful darkness for the people.
When you turn to look at the back wall of that small church, you see the startling stations of the cross. The stations are enlarged sketches taken from photographs of the victims of the death squads that murdered thousands of innocent people. The victims are shown as they were discovered after their bloody assassinations. The evidence of torture in these sketches makes it difficult to look at them.

When you turn back to face the sanctuary, you see paintings on the walls that call to mind the Resurrection. They are reminders of Jesus’ triumph over death. And also the triumph of the six murdered priests and the many other victims of the death squads.
The bright Salvadoran sunlight that typically floods that chapel through the clear glass windows, and the bright colors of its walls, and the many flowers in the sanctuary celebrate the triumph of God’s Spirit over the forces of evil.

What we should draw from this gospel story is that the power of the Spirit of God is greater than the spirit of evil. Satan is not even remotely an equal opponent of God. What is central in today’s temptation story, then, is not Satan, but the Holy Spirit who empowered Jesus to defeat the evil spirit.
Jesus has given us the Holy Spirit to accompany us in our times in the wilderness when we are confronted by our own weakness in the face of the powerful forces of evil and despair.
Jesus says, “Fear not, I am with you always.”