Sunday, February 13, 2005


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Today is the first Sunday of Lent. In my Magnificat daily missal, there was a striking sermon for this day by Pope Saint Gregory The Great, who was Pope in the late sixth century. It's so good that I transcribed it for the blog. To understand the sermon, first look at today's reading from Genesis:

The LORD God formed man out of the clay of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and so man became a living being.

Then the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and he placed there the man whom he had formed. Out of the ground the LORD God made various trees grow that were delightful to look at and good for food, with the tree of life in the middle of the garden and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

Now the serpent was the most cunning of all the animals that the LORD God had made. The serpent asked the woman, "Did God really tell you not to eat from any of the trees in the garden?" The woman answered the serpent: "We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; it is only about the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden that God said, 'You shall not eat it or even touch it, lest you die.'" But the serpent said to the woman: "You certainly will not die! No, God knows well that the moment you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods who know what is good and what is bad." The woman saw that the tree was good for food, pleasing to the eyes, and desirable for gaining wisdom. So she took some of its fruit and ate it; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized that they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.

And then the Gospel reading from Matthew:

At that time Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was hungry. The tempter approached and said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become loaves of bread."

He said in reply, "It is written: 'One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.'"

Then the devil took him to the holy city, and made him stand on the parapet of the temple, and said to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. For it is written: 'He will command his angels concerning you and 'with their hands they will support you, lest you dash your foot against a stone.'"

Jesus answered him, "Again it is written, 'You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.'"

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.

Now here is Saint Gregory's sermon:

This whole diabolic temptation took place from without, not from within. If we look at the progress of his temptation, we see how great the struggle was that set us free from temptation. Our ancient enemy rose up against the first human being, our ancestor, in three temptations. He tempted him by gluttony, by vain glory, and by avarice. And he overcame him when he tempted him, because he subjugated him through consent. He tempted him by gluttony when he showed him the forbidden food of the tree, and told him: “Taste it.” He tempted him by vain glory when he said, “You will be like gods.” He tempted him by adding avarice when he said, “knowing good and evil.” Avarice is concerned not only with money but also with high position. We rightly call it avarice when we seek high position beyond measure. If grasping at honor was not related to avarice, Paul would not have said of God’s only-begotten Son: “He did not think that being equal to God was something to be grasped.” The devil drew our ancestor to pride by stirring him up to an avaricious desire for high position.

But the means by which he overcame the first man were the same ones which caused him to yield when he tempted the second.

He tempted him by gluttony when he said, “Tell these stones to become bread.” He tempted him by vain glory when he said, “If you are the Son of God, cast yourself down.” He tempted him by an avaricious desire for high position when he showed him all the kingdoms of the world, saying, “I will give you all these if you will fall down and worship me.” The second man overcame him by the same means by which he had boasted that he used to overcome the first man. As a captive he would depart from our hearts by the same avenue which had given him entrance when he possessed us.

It was being inspired by this kind of ancient-but-fresh mystical theological thinking that first turned me from Buddhist to Catholic...

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