Word & word. 1st Sunday of Lent ’16

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

from the Gospel according to Luke 4:1-13

Are there times when good and evil somehow cooperate with one another?

It is fascinating that ‘filled with the Holy Spirit,’ and ‘led,’ (or as it is sometimes translated ‘driven’) by the Spirit, Jesus is moved following his baptism directly into a place of loneliness and privation.  But even more than that, he is driven directly into the sights of the devil who stands ready and eager to engage him in conversation.

Rather than this being a kind of instance of cooperation between good and evil, it might be better seen as a moment in which the devil unwittingly is co-opted by the Spirit for the sake of good.  The devil believes, alone with Jesus whom he testifies in effect is indeed ‘the Son of God,’ that he [Satan] is in charge and setting the agenda as he puts one temptation after the other in Jesus’ way.

But there is deeper agency here.  Underneath the devil’s promptings the Spirit of God, the Spirit that animates and moves Jesus, can be seen using the devil to bring the Son of God to a point of readiness to open his ministry.  Jesus is brought by these 40 days of hunger and temptation in the desert to the perfect expression of self-offering to what the Father asks of him, not what Satan asks of him, nor what his own humanity might choose.

Jesus chooses to trust the Father in the Spirit to nourish him, to give him what he needs to carry out his mission, to protect him from ultimate harm, even when ultimate harm will indeed be visited upon him.

There is great hope here as Lent begins for we who live on this same earth of deserts and hungers and temptations today. Evil still goes about doing its harm, planning its triumph. It does not realize even yet that its power is illusory and that Another is guiding all things to the good (Romans 8).  Every day the news we hear is full of the apparent advance of the agenda of disunity, of violence, of heartbreak, and death.

Through it all, we are being polished bright, burnished by the wing of the Spirit to shine in the world, to reflect the everlasting light of the good God who will not allow anything less than the full-throated shout of joy to be the final word of this creation and the first and lasting word of a new heaven and earth (Revelation 21:1-7).

Botticelli, detail 2
Three Temptations of Christ, detail (1481-82) fresco by Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510). Sistine Chapel, the Vatican
  • JP McGinty

Aylan, Humanity, Sorrow, and the Call to Be More

Last evening after I arrived at the pond I paused long enough to see online, first in a Facebook posting by Jim Martin SJ and then in several different settings, the photo of the tiny 3-year old Syrian boy in his sneakers and colorful clothes lying dead on the shores of Europe. I have been living – at the periphery of my consciousness – with an awareness of the increasing refugee crisis pressing on Europe; on the thousands coming in desperation from North Africa and Syria, from places that have been called ‘home’ for generations, but which in this generation have been renamed ‘mayhem,’ ‘constant danger,’ ‘no hope,’ ‘death.’

The photo of Aylan Kurdi brought all this from a mind-thing (at best a distant one) to a heart thing as well. These can and should go together. I will admit to you that I cried. And then I cried again. And then I cried more. Some have said that this photo should not have been shared. I believe it is vital that it has been. I pray that none other like it will ever be there before a camera lens. But as long as these very real, reprehensible, humanly excruciating situations endure, these photos must be taken. And must be seen.


I will speak only for myself. This photo of the end of Aylan’s short life, brought about by the violence and stubbornness of some and by the inaction and paralysis of others, is needed to finally begin – just begin – to move me out of the lethargy and indifference and lack-of-understanding that is mine.

I think back over my years. I think of the Rwandan genocide in 1994. I was teaching at Saint John’s Seminary in Boston. I was putting my all into the work that was mine. I was seeing and feeling it as a ministry, as a call from God, and so I still believe it was. But it was startling to me, deep in my heart, years later, perhaps when the film Hotel Rwanda was released, that I did not remember knowing anything about that horror during the brief and intense period it was going on. I do not remember being involved in a conversation about it. I do not remember learning what was going on effectively from the news media at the time.

Where was I?

Last evening, today, when I see the photo of Aylan, I wonder at how much it takes to bring me to pull me out of my own little world, to broaden my vision beyond the concerns that take up 98% of my consciousness from day to day, to wake me up.

That’s why, I at least, need to be bludgeoned out of my comfortable ignorance and apathy by the tender horror of that photo. Aylan’s body was surrounded by others. I am surrounded by living bodies and minds and hearts. I have to ask myself, and you …

When will I fully realize what has always been true and is revealed more fully than ever perhaps in these our times?

The well being of humanity is the shared responsibility of every human being.

There are no strangers at last.

There are no children that only belong to others.

There are no elderly whose stresses and pains and fears are only their own.

There are no women in danger anywhere who are not my sister, and yours.

Yesterday my 3-year-old and 5-year-old sons died in the Aegean Sea. I pray the Gospel of Jesus Christ and I know this is literally true. So what will I do today?

Aylan, his brother Galip, and their Dad, before yesterday.
Aylan, his brother Galip, and their Dad, before yesterday.

What are we about?

Each of us on the Bishop’s staff have been asked to prepare an ‘elevator speech’ to share this morning about what our work, our ministry, our piece of the pie, is about. I have come to recognize in myself over my life a distinct tendency to see the grays, the ambiguities, the unspoken possibilities, the unmet difficulties, the unrecognized potentials, rather than the black-and-white, what is in place, the details that are carrying on their back things as they presently are.

As a result, I don’t think there is a building tall enough to contain an elevator speech that I might prepare, that is, a summation of what I am about with others that might be spoken as the lift moves from the basement to the roof.

However, because one is sometime required to do what is not native, and in doing so to be stretched in helpful fashion, here goes:

We live in a moment in many ways marvelous, where and when ever-new technologies and gadgets invite us to interface, associate, relate with, hook up and plug into one another. And yet, in a measure so deep as to be rarely recognized for what it is or dared to be spoken with clarity, we live in a time of profound disconnection with each other, as monads trolling social media ultimately alone, walking darkened virtual streets, companion-less in a way we cannot bear to admit. In this 21st century world, the Mercer School of Theology remains to offer an invitation to information, inspiration, and the possibility of insight by bringing us together into conversation about the gifts of the past, the present, and the possible future. Centered in Jesus Christ, the insight that counts is not the one that we might offer you. The insight that matters is the one that you might discover in our company. Mercer exists to forge connections among persons, and in that discovery to find that we are connected together with God. In that connection. we know ourselves as agents of transformative love.

Or, to put it more briefly: We live in empty fantasy. The Gospel invites us to full and saving reality. Mercer is here to help. Go!

Being Divinely Human and Humanly Divine

We have these words in the gospel today according to Matthew, chapter 16:

“But he [Jesus] turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.'”

One might perhaps sympathize with Peter, who earlier in the chapter, as read last week, was the recipient of divine revelation, the man of insight, the Rock, and who this week is called “Satan,” by the same Jesus and told to get behind, get in line. Whether one sympathizes in this case in the petrine direction or not, Jesus’ words quoted above seem to do more than imply Jesus’ direction that we human beings are in fact able – and expected! – to set our minds not on human things, but on divine.

His words also make clear, as I suspect most of us would admit, that our default setting is indeed to think in human ways, to set our mind on human things. In this particular case, to do so would seem, according to Peter’s example, to shy away from both the possibility and the reality of suffering – either for ourselves or for those whom we love. And yes, humanly this shying away does seem to be reasonable.

Yet Jesus makes it apparent that in this and other affairs, both our possibility and our call is to begin to think divinely! That is, to set our mind on divine things.

How to do this?

Paul’s words in the second verse of his twelfth chapter of the letter to the church at Rome seems to point the way:

“Do not conform to the pattern of the world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (NIV). Or, as Eugene Peterson’s rendering puts it in The Message: “Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out.”

Peterson is on to something I think. To think as we automatically do, as humans, is in effect to ‘not think’ at all. It is simply to go along. To me, this in turn points to the idea that to think divinely, to set our minds on things divine, is somehow to do more, It is perhaps, as the Eastern traditions would say – and with them them mystical traditions of the West – to be mindful, to live life alive and aware of reality around us, of the meaning of our actions, of the words we speak and hear, of the miraculous persons with whom we share our days.

Perhaps today we can hear this invitation – demand? – of Jesus anew, and with Peter begin to open ourselves already, now, to the fact that more than human reality is already happening in and around us.