Sunday, February 18, 2018

Animals & Angels

Just a heads-up: I'll be away on vacation in Florida this week with my family, so there will be no homily posted next Sunday.  This afternoon, I went cross country skiing.  Tomorrow afternoon, I'll be on the beach...

   First Sunday of Lent   B 

I haven’t verified it, but this Sunday’s gospel reading has to be one of the shortest in the entire Lectionary—only four verses long.   Which might have you wondering: Does that mean a short homily, too?  Only time will tell…

Most of you know I like to go backpacking, and often enough I spend a night in the woods alone.  If I’m camping in the winter, the first question I get asked is, “How do you stay warm?”  You can stay pretty toasty on a cold night if you have the right gear.  But if I’m camping at any other time of the year, the first question is usually, “Aren’t you afraid of animals?”  (“Lions, and tigers, and bears—oh, my!”)  If you take proper, commonsense precautions, wildlife is not a problem.  (I don’t keep any food with me in my sleeping bag, for example.)  The only critters that have been a minor nuisance are a few mice…and I’ve seen many more of them in the rectory than around my campsites!

Our very brief gospel passage this First Sunday of Lent finds Jesus camped out in the wilderness, spending forty days in the desert.  St. Mark tells us that, while there, “he was among wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him.”  At first glance, that seems rather straightforward.  But let’s dig a little deeper…

Jesus Christ is true God and true man.  It’s in his human nature, of course, that Satan dares to tempt him.  Jesus is like us in all things but sin.  Which means that, like us, his human nature includes body and soul, a blend of the material and the spiritual—one might say, of the animal and the angelic.

Now we can begin to see Mark’s deeper meaning!

Each Sunday, we profess in our Creed to believe that God the Father is the maker “of all things visible and invisible.”  Thus we human beings, by God’s design, are the very hinge of the entire cosmos, for in us matter and spirit meet.

When body and soul are working together as they should, it’s a truly beautiful thing.  Consider someone playing a beautiful piece of music.  Of course, there are the physics of how the instrument makes a sound, how the sound waves travel through the air, how those waves impact you eardrum, and then your brain “hears” what’s being played.  But that doesn’t really explain beautiful music, which conveys feeling and meaning and the passion of the performer. 

Or think of the men’s figure skating competition at the Olympics on Friday night.  Those guys train hard, and must develop a lot of technical skill.  Yet a great performance isn’t merely physical, but displays a certain grace of movement that’s hard to put your finger on.  When we experience such harmony of matter and spirit, between animal and angel, we’re given a little taste of the world as it was meant to be.

But you don’t need me to tell you that this world isn’t how it was meant to be.  And that’s because of sin.  Sin is when body and soul get out of sync.  We seem to be at war with or within ourselves.  I do the things I know I shouldn’t, and sometimes even do things I don’t really want to do.

Sin is when body and soul get out of sync.  When body and soul get separated, that’s death.  One leads to the other.

There are essentially two ways for our matter and spirit to get out of whack.   The first is to put too much emphasis on the physical, on the body.  “If it feels good, do it!”  We become pleasure seekers, who let our urges and passions run wild.  We begin to act like animals.

The second is to put too much emphasis on the spiritual, on the soul.  We turn into puritans who think that the body is evil and grow suspicious of everything.  As a result, we become self-righteous and joyless, acting as if we were angels.

How are we to get body and soul back into harmony?  That’s the very purpose of Lent.

Jesus emerges from his own season of fasting preaching a very simple yet profound message: “The kingdom of God is at hand.  Repent, and believe in the gospel.”  Jesus tells us first to repent.  Just as wild animals can be tamed, so do we require a certain amount of discipline to bring us back in line.  Our bodily passions require good boundaries—adequate fencing, if you will.  Repentance is making any and all necessary changes—turning away from our sinful thinking and behavior, and turning back toward the Lord. 

And Jesus also tells us to believe in the gospel.  We are not all of us little gods—authorities unto ourselves.  Our spirits require proper guidance and direction.  Not all the angels are good; the devil himself is a fallen one.  And so we are called to the obedience of faith, to faith in the gospel, in the “good news”—which is good because it brings us life and freedom, and which is news because it remains as relevant today as ever.

Repentance and faith bring body and soul, once divided by sin, back into harmony—and that harmony we call holiness.  It’s what we see perfectly in Jesus, who “was among wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him.”  This all hints at the ultimate reunion of matter and spirit, of body and soul: the resurrection, which we will celebrate with the great feast of Easter at Lent’s end—and which we await on the last day.

Such a restoration of creation, putting things back as they were originally meant to be, is something God has been working on since Eden.  We see that in the story of Noah and the flood—the very end of which we hear in today’s first reading—when God gives a fresh start to the human race and all life on earth.  And we experience that in the Sacrament of Baptism—as St. Peter reminds us in our second reading—which is a bath for the body that results in the deep cleansing of the soul.

Always remember that you are so much more than your body.  Nor are you just your immortal soul.  You are a human person, an utterly unique blend of matter and spirit that puts you at the pinnacle of creation.  But even more, by Baptism you have become a child of God.  But just as Jesus wrestles with Satan right on the heels of his own Baptism, so do we continue to face temptation from the world, the flesh, and the devil.  Let us give ourselves over to the disciplines of repentance and the obedience of faith this Lent, and so allow God to restore us to harmony within ourselves—to the way he originally intended us to be.  Then we’ll be able to walk with Jesus among both the wild beasts and the angels.

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