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Friday, February 20, 2009

“The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan. He was among wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him.” (Mark 1:12-13)

“SOUL-SURFING” – March 1, 2009
First Sunday of Lent
Mark 1:12-15
Fr. Robert deLeon, CSC

“Opportunity may knock once but temptation leans on the doorbell.” I spied the adage on the video screen in the hospital cafeteria, this and similar maxims offered to impatient patrons as they wait in line to pay for their fare. Then I thought of Dad who at 85 struggles to hear even with the assistance of a hearing aid. Hardly ever does Dad hear the doorbell, and even when he does, he may well choose to ignore it. This amazingly healthy and stubbornly independent mid-octogenarian presently revels in a solitary life with his pets and blaring TV. And while Dad surely enjoys company, it’s the hardest thing to visit him. He insists on keeping the doors locked, rarely wears his hearing aid at home and more rarely hears the doorbell or phone. While we’ve come to accept his way of life, it did cause some panic during the recent mid-December ice storm here in the northeast.

For 7 full days Dad huddled alone with his two cats (Nip and Tuck) in a darkened house whose temperature dropped to 41 degrees. His suburban Albany neighborhood was one of the last to have power restored. Now, I’m quick to add that my brother and sister who live near Dad tried in vain to extricate him from the house, but he absolutely refused. He was going to tough it out with his faithful furry friends. As a concession, though, Dad did agree to an intrusion on his polar isolation as each morning and evening my brother Rick delivered steaming hot coffee and accompanying victuals from the local McDonald’s. With the doorbell not working and Dad unable to hear it even if it had, Rick reluctantly got Dad to unlock his front door daily at 8 AM and 4 PM so the coffee run could be completed. Of course, Dad still had a functioning gas stove and lots of canned soups, so starvation was never a problem. Only after the return of power did Rick confess that the twice daily coffee runs were more to determine it our father had yet succumbed to the cold.

Meanwhile, frequent e-mails from my sister Lauri queried me on the topic of death by hypothermia: Did it take long? Was it painful? Would the cats go first? I could assure Lauri that, from what I knew, it was a gentle sort of death. Obviously, she was preparing herself for the worst!

In the end, not only did Dad and his cats survive with nary a sniffle, but now he could spin heroic tales of surviving conditions from which those half his age had fled. Why, wrestling with Mother Nature for 7 full days had been no contest at all with felines Nip and Tuck cuddled up next to him and Rick twice daily supplying provisions from the outside world.

It’s not so hard at all to imagine Dad’s experience as parody to the gospel passage we hear today on the First Sunday of Lent: Dad toughing it out in the frozen desert with wild beasts (well, sort of) and ministering angel Rick providing for him. St. Mark the Evangelist writes, “The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan. He was among wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him.” (Mark 1:12-13) Jesus didn’t give in to the devil’s wiles, and neither did Dad. There’s a whopping difference, though. Jesus emerged from his desert experience more fully immersed in the human experience. He came out of the desert having battled temptation, something all of us mortals must do. On the other hand, Dad emerged from his polar desert convinced he was a cut above mere mortals. After all, few at 85 could endure a week in a 41-degree house. In the end, Jesus’ days in the desert humanized him; Dad’s may well have de-humanized him.

That cafeteria maxim so well defines the role temptation plays in our lives: “Opportunity may knock once but temptation leans on the doorbell.” At home with his hearing aid removed, Dad can’t hear the doorbell, and even when he does, he may well ignore it. He’s that stubbornly independent. And while it may be okay for today, there are worries about tomorrow. Will he ever be able to admit that he needs a little help? Will he ever let his own kids, and there are 6 of us, provide for him? So far, the answer to both questions is mostly a resounding no. The temptation that rings incessantly in Dad’s ears is to go it alone.

And so it may be for some of us, even those with perfect hearing. To go it alone is thought a virtue, toughing it out by ourselves proof of our strength. And we may even have allowed this kind of thinking to pervade our spiritual lives. We may have barred the door to God, refusing him entry into our hearts and minds. Perhaps we no longer hear him at the door seeking entry; or worse, we do hear and simply refuse to answer. Indeed, the temptation that rings in our ears is to go it alone.

And while we wish that doorbell would just stop ringing and give us a moment’s peace, battling temptation humanizes us, just as it did Jesus in the desert. Indeed, battling temptation is meant for our strengthening not our destruction. And in the end, “What does not destroy me makes me stronger.” (Nietzsche)

“The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan. He was among wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him.” (Mark 1:12-13) As we begin another Lent, we confess that we’ve been in the desert many days already, threatening beasts pulling us one way, ministering angels another. It’s tiring. When does it end? “Well,” says Jesus, “I know it’s tiring. It tired me out, too. And it does end. At home. With me.”


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