He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High.
Today I was privileged to celebrate the noon Mass at St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Palo Alto, California, which I've mentioned here before as the home of the St. Ann Choir, an ensemble devoted to the performance of Gregorian chant and Renaissance polyphony directed for over fifty years by Professor William Mahrt of Stanford University. It was honor to celebrate Mass at St. Thomas Aquinas and to chat afterward with Professor Mahrt on various topics related to sacred music. For the hopeful edification of some, I'm posting the text of my homily below. The readings were those of the First Sunday of Lent (Gen 2:7-9, 3:1-7; Rom 5:12-19; Mt 4:1-11), with some reference made also to the liturgical propers and to the tract, which was sung in its entirety at the Mass by the St. Ann Choir.
Today we celebrate the First Sunday of Lent, and as we do so the liturgy gives us a few special reminders that we have entered a season of penitential preparation for Easter. In Lent, as in Advent, we hear a different setting of the ordinary parts of the Mass, with chants of the Kyrie, the Sanctus, and the Agnus Dei which are particular to the liturgical season and different from those heard on other Sundays of the year. The Gloria and the Alleluia have temporarily retreated from the liturgy, and in the place of the Alleluia we have a series of Lenten tracts, the first of which we have just heard.
I'll say a little more about the tract later in this homily, but for now I think it's worth repeating a point that you may have already noticed if you have read the leaflet for today's Mass, or indeed as you may have noticed simply from listening to the tract itself. The tract for the First Sunday of Lent is particularly long – it is much longer than the tracts that we hear on the other Lenten Sundays, though we will hear tracts of similar length again on Palm Sunday and Good Friday. This fact alone suggests that there is something out of the ordinary, something unique, about this Sunday.
Why does the Church give us this special time of preparation for Easter? Why, in other words, does Easter require Lent? A theologian of the last century named Alexander Schmemann described Easter as a celebration of the gift of new life that has been given to us through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And yet, as Schmemann observed, we often live our lives as if the resurrection never occurred – we can easily forget about the gift of new life that Christ has given us. As Schmemann wrote, "because we forget, we fail. And through this forgetfulness, failure, and sin, our life becomes 'old' again – petty, dark, and ultimately meaningless..." "If we realize this," Schmemann continued, "then we may realize what Easter is and why it presupposes Lent. For we may then understand that the liturgical traditions of the Church, all its cycles and services, exist, first of all, in order to help us recover the vision and the taste of that new life which we so easily lose and betray, that we may repent and return to it."
In today's epistle, St. Paul the Apostle contrasts the sin of Adam with the redemption brought by Christ so as to remind us of the gift of new life that we have been given. As Paul tells the Romans, "just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so through the obedience of the one, the many will be made righteous" (Rom 5:19). As consoling as this message is for us, I believe we also know that it can be very difficult to break out of the patterns of sin and temptation to which we are all prone. An important first step for us is to own up to the enormity of the challenge, so as to more effectively overcome it.
The first reading from the Book of Genesis reminds us that the most subtle forms of temptation can also be the most difficult to resist. When Eve repeats God's command forbidding her and Adam to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the serpent offers a counterargument that proves convincing to Eve: once she and Adam eat from the tree, the serpent tells them, they "will be like gods who know what is good and what is evil" (Gen 3:5). It is the desire to discern between good and evil that clinches the serpent’s argument. Given that we know what happens afterward, it can be easy to forget how attractive the serpent's argument must have been. The serpent uses the appearance of good – namely, the desire for wisdom – in order to convince Eve to violate God’s command.
We might ask ourselves whether we have been tempted in similar ways: do we sometimes find ourselves tempted to sin in the belief that something good will result? On the same token, we can perhaps think of times when we have acted with mixed motives, doing good deeds in ways that are ultimately self-serving. I think that T. S. Eliot captured this dilemma particularly well in Murder in the Cathedral, which shows the twelfth-century English archbishop Thomas Becket anticipating his martyrdom with the awareness that he will win adulation on account of the manner of his death. As Eliot has Becket say, "The last temptation is the greatest treason: to do the right deed for the wrong reason."
In the Gospel, Jesus faces temptations every bit as subtle as those faced by Eve. The temptations that the Devil presents to Jesus rely upon base human instincts and desires – the instinct for self-preservation, and the desire for wealth and for power. The Evangelist Matthew presents the temptation in the desert as a battle of wits waged through competing appeals to scripture – notably, the Devil quotes the very same psalm that is quoted in the tract for today's Mass. Indeed, all of the musical propers for this Mass are taken from this psalm, numbered Psalm 90 in the Latin Vulgate and Psalm 91 in most modern English translations.
Scholars suggest that this particular psalm was chosen to play such a prominent role in today's Mass precisely because of the way it is referenced in today’s Gospel. The Devil uses this psalm to attempt to mock Jesus, urging him to throw himself down from the parapet of the Temple by suggesting that the Father "will command his angels concerning you," and "with their hands they will support you, lest you dash your foot against a stone" (Ps 91:11-12). The liturgy for this Sunday offers a kind of rebuttal to the Devil by invoking the same psalm to call upon God for help and protection. As the Tract has it, "He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High shall abide under the protection of the God of Heaven. He shall say to the Lord: you are my protector and my refuge, my God, in whom I trust" (Ps 91:1-2). As we journey through Lent, the words of this psalm remind us of our need to call upon God for help and protection. This is the special invitation that God extends to us during Lent: to clothe ourselves in prayer to and to allow it to permeate our lives, just as the prayer of the Psalmist permeates today’s liturgy.
May this Lenten Season be for us an opportunity to grow in closeness to the One who has called us to new life. In our struggles to overcome the temptations that we all face, let us take heart from the example that Christ gives us in today's Gospel, for, as the Preface of today's Mass reminds us, it is he who "consecrated through his fast the pattern of our Lenten observance, and by overturning all the snares of the ancient serpent, taught us to cast out the leaven of malice, so that, celebrating worthily the Paschal Mystery, we might pass over at last to the eternal paschal feast."
If you would like to hear the tract featured during today's liturgy, please listen to the video featured above. If you would like to learn more about Bill Mahrt and the St. Ann Choir, this article by Cynthia Haven would be a good place to start. AMDG.