It is interesting how God seems to allow unrelated things to come together for the good. All week, I was having trouble figuring our how to organize this sermon—I knew what I wanted to say, but just couldn’t get the pieces to fit together properly. Seemingly unrelated to the sermon, I received a message from my good friend, Father Joachim Campbell, who is a traditional priest in England—it was very sad, for within a brief period of time, Father suffered the loss of his mother, Catherine Campbell, and his nephew, Mike Pavilonis—the nephew leaving behind a wife and very young child. I wrote back that I would commend them to your prayers, and would offer Mass for each of them, which I did on Friday and Saturday. Since I had offered the burial Mass on Friday, on Saturday I decided to read the anniversary Mass, which differs in the Epistle and Gospel. And there they were, these words of our Lord in Saint John’s Gospel:
“I have come down from heaven, not to do
My own will,
Our Lord, as true God and true man, possesses both a human will and the divine will of God. This was the subject of much controversy in the early years of the Church. An error that was called the “monothelite” heresy held that Christ had only the divine will—and that if there ever had been a human will in Him, it had been, so to speak, “swallowed up” by the divine will. (In Greek, “monothelite” means “one will.”) This error, of course, suggested that as a human, Christ lacked free will, and therefore did not freely give up His life for us on the cross—and that, of course, is simply false. Indeed, in this Gospel reading, we hear our Lord clearly making the distinction between His human will and the divine will. He makes the distinction, while at the same time indicating that He subordinates and coordinates His human will with the divine.
While we don’t need to know anything more about the monothelite heresy, it certainly would be valuable to consider the perfect unity of the divine and the human will in Jesus Christ, with the hope of understanding how it might be possible for us faithful followers of Christ to also conform our human wills to the will of God. If fact, if you had to define the purpose of this season of Lent in just a few words, that would make a good definition: “To make our own wills Christ-like, and thereby to make them like the will of God.”
Saint Paul urges this in this morning’s reading from his Epistle to the Corinthians: “Let us conduct ourselves in all circumstances as God’s ministers.” We are to be, he is saying, like God’s representatives or ambassadors—no matter what is going on around us—doing the will of the One whom we represent. And, as we read only two weeks ago, Paul had been through quite a bit in the course of his missionary journeys to spread the Catholic Faith, before his martyrdom in Rome. So, Paul is a good example for our emulation—a man of intense activity on behalf of God, while, at the same time, a man of deep contemplative prayer—a combination that can be possible only in souls who have brought themselves into close conformity with the will of God.
Between the Epistle and the Gospel today, we have the beautiful and venerable chant of Psalm 90, in its oldest known Latin form. It is often referred to as a “messianic psalm,” in that its verses are thought to refer specifically to Christ Himself. In today’s Gospel, even the Devil acknowledges that the psalm refers to the Son of God. But it is also reasonable for us to draw great personal strength and reassurance from the psalm if we are followers of Christ: “You who dwell in the shelter of the Most High, shall abide in the shadow of the Almighty. Say to the Lord, «My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.»” Again, it is by making ourselves Christ-like that we are able to “abide in the shadow of the Almighty,” and allow our wills to be overshadowed by His.
The event in this morning’s Gospel took place just after our Lord had been baptized in the Jordan River by Saint John; just before He selected the first Apostles and preached the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus was led into the desert by the Spirit. “Spirit” is spelled with a capital “S” even in the Latin, which is generally less likely to capitalize than our English language—it refers, therefore, to the Holy Ghost. What our Lord did in the desert was done for our understanding, for our edification, but above all for our imitation.
The forty day fast was not an innovation. The same was recorded for both Moses and Elias in the Old Testament; there may well have been others. In fact, the fast represents more than just the forty day observance of Lent—it reminds us the self-renunciation which characterized our Lord’s entire life. We told of His fast to encourage us to practice self-denial in a much more general way—Fridays, and Lent, and Ember days, and fasting Vigils are all but reminders that we should make a habit of giving up some of the innocent pleasures of life, so that when serious temptation comes our way, it will be easier to shrug off the evil as something we voluntarily choose not to do.
The Gospel also tells us something about temptation. Jesus is offered three things: food, worldly renown and possessions, and the opportunity to worship. All of these things are God’s creations, and are, therefore, intrinsically good—they are things which it is reasonable for a person to desire. The Gospel has us consider that temptation comes about only when we get it into our heads to take something that God has made—and made appealing to us—and to use that thing for some inordinate purpose. Food is good if not used inordinately through gluttony. Material things can be used for great good or for great evil, their possessors must make that choice. The worship of God in accordance with His wishes is perhaps the highest good of mankind—false worship and false gods may well be mankind’s greatest evil. The Gospels are replete with accounts of our Lord making use of material things, eating and drinking, and certainly praying and worshipping. Again we must be Christ-like, and use the things which appeal to us only in conformity with the divine will.
That suggests one final point: how do we know the will of God? How do we know when we may make use of something that appeals to us? when we ought to abstain from it? or when we must abstain from it? Some of that is the work of conscience. If we were raised in a Christian household and grew up in Christian society, we have a sort of innate understanding of what is good and what is evil; and we have similar respect for the moderate use of things that are permitted to us.
I would suggest, though, that in practice, most of us need to spend a bit of time considering the issues of the day, and how God’s Moral Law might be applied to them and to their use. Broadly stated, God’s Law is much like the “manufacturer’s instructions” for human society—the things that are against God’s Law are generally the things which will cause society to malfunction. God is good, but not false gods or vain observances; food and drink are good, but only in kinds and quantities that will keep us healthy; the love of another person is good, but not if that person is someone else’s husband or wife; material possessions are good, but not if we intend to take them from others by theft or violence, and not if our greed will cause others to go without necessities. When we are tempted, we must consider these things, and make a decision in as close conformity with God’s will as possible.
In the long term, God’s will is the only possible way to achieve human happiness. Serious violations of the Moral Law will only produce chaos in the world around us. Such violations, likewise, produce chaos in the life we might otherwise expect to live in eternity. That Gospel from the Requiem Mass expresses it clearly: Christ came to do not His own will, but the will of His Father. It is the will of the Father who sent Him that all believe in Him, and follow Him, and imitate Him—that we make His will our will. It is the will of the Father that if we do these things we will have life everlasting, and we will be raised up on the last day.