1st Sunday of Lent

Preached March 1, 2020; St. Peter Catholic Church, The Dalles, Oregon

God created two interrelated orders, the order of nature and the order of supernature, or the order of grace. When I speak of the order of nature, I am not speaking of just physical and bodily nature, because there is also the spiritual angelic nature and the spiritual nature of the human soul.

The order of supernature presupposes and builds upon the order of nature, while the order of nature is subordinate to the order of grace which brings it to a fulfillment and completion far beyond anything that nature could expect or achieve. We could compare this to the relation of a building (supernature) and its foundation (nature), or a tree (supernature) and the soil in which it grows (nature), except this separates the two excessively. So maybe it would be better to think of an apple tree growing from the soil, the sap of which is transformed by some special additive, so that it produces perfect apples of a quality that could never otherwise be found in this world. So the man whose life is transformed by grace, remains a man, but possesses an extraordinary goodness, beyond anything within the reach of unaided human nature; so much so that they become, in a way, a divine man. The order of grace attains its fulfillment in nothing less than the face to face vision of God, the beatific vision, which fulfills and more than fulfills every created desire, a vision that is shared in by both men and angels.

In today’s 1st reading, we meet with the devil, the father of lies, represented by the serpent, leading our first parents into sin and rebellion against God. In today’s 2nd reading we heard St. Paul talking about the consequences of Adam’s sin, namely death, not just death of the body, but even more the privation of the supernatural life of grace, and the greater grace of restoration to supernatural life through the redemption wrought by Jesus Christ. In the Gospel, we see Jesus confronting the author of sin, the devil, conquering temptation on behalf of us all, teaching us to recognize and reject temptation and giving us the strength to do so.

The devil, the father of lies and author of sin, was created by God along with all the angels, but he led a large number of those angels in rebellion against God and continues to preside over the demonic kingdom in its continued opposition to Christ and his Church. Though he will often present himself as the friend of humanity, that too is a lie. Rather, with an implacable and malicious will, he wants our destruction and damnation. That is the only way he can now attack God and Jesus Christ.

While it became popular during the 20th century, especially among ‘educated circles’, to dismiss the reality of the devil as a mere fantasy of Christians, the reality and action of the demonic is becoming ever more manifest and evident in our world today. Even though the devil and his fallen angels act more openly, they still act deceitfully, often presenting themselves as the benefactors of humanity, suggesting that in the past they were given a bad rap by Christians. They will also exploit the idea of religious liberty (from which has arisen the idea of the equality of religions) to bring men in subjection again to the deceits of ancient paganism and even to open diabolism. In the world today the devil’s religious deception often makes use of religious practices, like Yoga and Zen, that are not presented as such, because then they could not gain traction in our secular society, but instead present themselves purely as means of health and well-being, peace of mind. The devil also exploits the idea of equality to set men in conflict, dividing the world into irreconcilable groups of oppressors and oppressed, while fragmenting the “oppressed” into a multitude of different “victims” groups.

For all that, it is necessary to understand that underlying all the diabolic deceits is the rejection of the order of supernature, the order of grace. This was indeed the original sin of the devil. Unlike us, the devil can never be in doubt about the existence of God or his power – which means there is always a curious kind of willful insanity at the root of all sin. Nevertheless, God offended the pride of the devil by offering the gift of the beatific vision, the face to face vision of God. The catch: the gift had to be recognized and received precisely as a gift. Instead of humbly receiving the supernatural gift of the beatific vision, the devil proudly took his stand on the great dignity of his created nature. The devil’s rebellion set the order of nature in opposition to the order of grace. So, now the devil will offer us earthly bread, if he can thereby get us to forget Jesus’ promise of heavenly bread.

The pride of devil finds its true opposite not in God, nor in Christ, but in the Blessed Virgin Mary, full of grace. The devil’s “I will not serve” is opposed the Immaculate Virgin Mary’s, “Behold, the handmaid of the Lord, be it done to me according to your word.”

The devil set the order of nature in opposition to the order of grace. This same possibility of rebellion is what lies at the heart of the difference between the two trees in the middle of the garden: the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

The symbolism of the two trees reveals two possibilities in our intelligent created nature.

We can use our minds either to recognize, accept, and live in accordance with the gift of God, following the path of humility and love. In this way we turn towards the tree of life.

Or we can use our minds to exploit the possibilities of the created world, directing them in service of our own self-appointed plans and projects. In this way we eat again and again from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, making ourselves to be masters of good and evil. The tree of knowledge turns knowledge into power in the service of self. This has been the path of the modern world in its rejection of God.

Now, as I already observed, the devil cannot doubt the existence of God and of his power. For us, however, while God makes himself known through the order of created nature, he remains deeply hidden and the plan of his providence is altogether obscure. Apart from God’s supernatural revelation of himself and his plan of salvation in Jesus Christ, the world can seem to get along very well without him. Apart from human beings, the rest of visible creation so perfectly obeys God’s will that we can (and do) count upon things acting according to fixed and discoverable laws.

Even the occasional miracles that God works are easily forgotten or disbelieved precisely because things return to normal after the miracle. So when the Pharisees were presented with the man born blind, who had received his sight from Jesus, they wanted to disbelieve that the man was born blind.

Now, the whole of our modern technological society, which will not believe in anything it cannot see, is built on the premise that if God exists, he really is not relevant to anything. The influence of a public culture that has been emptied of all connection to God has had a widespread effect on the life of Catholics. I think that even a great many church going Catholics, even if they still believe in some way, consciously live only with an eye on the natural order; religion has become little more than a motivating force for social progress or psychological comfort. Certainly, the godless technological society seems to have worked extraordinarily well, at least in the short term, for the manipulation and exploitation of the earth’s natural resources, making many things easier and more convenient, but also bringing new disruptions and inconveniences, but it really has not worked so well for human life, to make men truly better. Now, moore and more we are experiencing the bitter fruits of the public rejection of the order of grace.

Now, a person can live within the order of nature simply be blind to the reality and offer of grace or a person could positively reject the order of grace. Jesus speaks about these two possibilities in the parable of the wedding of the King’s son (cf. Mt 22:1-14) and the man who prepares a great banquet (cf. Lk 14:15-24). In both cases there are some who receive the invitation, but reject it precisely because they are already busy, already occupied with their worldly activities, their worldly priorities, plans, and projects. Those who accept the invitation are those who do not find their satisfaction in what this world has to offer. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God. (Mt 5:3)

Those who, having been seduced by the devil, reject the invitation of grace, will be deprived of the banquet of the vision of God’s face (cf. Lk 14:24) and be eternally rejected and punished in the outer darkness. (cf. Mt 22:13) Nature without grace is not an option we are given; the rejection of the invitation of grace is supremely offensive to God.

Jesus Christ, the Son of God made man, made the order of grace visible to us in his life and in his person; he continues to make the order of grace visible to us through the sacraments and through the lives of the saints, those men and women whose lives were (and are) transformed by the grace of the sacraments. The saints show us what we are all meant to be and what we can become with the help of God’s active grace.

Lent is a time to rediscover the invitation of God’s grace, the invitation to the supernatural life, the invitation to take up anew, or with renewed energy, the desert journey through this life to the new and eternal Jerusalem. Lent is a time to reject anew Satan, all sin, and all temptation that can turn us away from or impede our progress in the life of grace. Lent is a time to apply our minds to the practice of virtue, which is the right use of the powers God has given us, the right use of ourselves even, in accordance with his law and his gift.

If we turn back to the Lord, our God, worship him alone, put his will and his promise above all our worldly projects, plans, and priorities, if we learn to feed on his word and on the true Bread of life, revealed to us by his word, the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, then we will walk secure, protected from all diabolic attack, guided and guarded by the holy angels, and sheltered beneath the mantle of the Blessed Virgin Mary, full of grace.

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Fr. Joseph Levine graduated from Thomas Aquinas College and after a long journey was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Baker, Oregon. He currently serves as pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in The Dalles on the Columbia River.