Tuesday, March 30, 2010

An Unholy Brotherhood: reflections on Phoebe Prince and the Passion of our Lord

I was unpleasantly surprised this morning, when in my spare time I checked one of the political blogs that I often read, and read about a horrible story that happened earlier this year in South Hadley, Massachusetts. It centered around a young girl of 15, named Phoebe Mary Nora Prince, who had started as a freshman last fall at South Hadley high school.

The Boston Globe article commemorating her death, on January 14th, started this way: "Like a lot of kids her age, Phoebe Prince was a swan: beautiful but sometimes awkward." She had just emigrated with her family, from Ireland to western Massachusetts. She had been at that age when most of us feel terribly insecure, nearly all the time, and when what is paramount, on which our happiness and self-confidence depend, is being welcomed and liked by others. She had found a few friends in Hadley, and had briefly dated a senior on the football team- and shortly before her death, had been asked out by another boy. Things could have been happy for her, and in a better world she would have been welcomed, loved, and made to feel at home. Unfortunately, a clique of boys and girls at the school felt that she was getting above herself, and set about to make her life miserable. They tormented her by calling her an 'Irish slut', abusing her verbally and physically, and in general made her life miserably. According to some claims she was sexually assaulted as well, and two older boys have been charged with statutory rape.

If she had lived three more years she could have escaped all this, but three years, when you are fifteen, can feel like a lifetime. And that lifetime was too much for this young, vulnerable Irish girl to endure.

On January 14th, as she was walking home, a group of teenagers threw a soda can at her, and called her names. This was the straw that broke the camel's back, and that afternoon, in a closet in her home, tormented, alone, and despairing, Phoebe Prince hanged herself. Her body was discovered by her twelve year old sister later that day.

This is one of the many times that I consider myself glad that I found Christ in my early 20s, because it allows me to hope that for innocent victims like Miss Prince, who were so cruelly treated by those around them, that the future life may bring a recompense for all the sufferings that they endured in this one. I'm glad that I can pray, with other Christians, this prayer, and mean it with every fiber of my being:

Into thy hands, O merciful Saviour, we commend thy servant Phoebe. Acknowledge, we humbly beseech thee, a lamb of thine own flock, a sheep of thine own fold, a sinner of thine own redeeming. Receive her into the arms of thy mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light. Amen.

But beyond praying for Phoebe, and for her sister and parents, now returned to Ireland from the country that brought death to their daughter, this sad, and horrible story made me think deeply about human evil. This is a good time to have such thoughts. For the story of the Passion, which we commemorated on Palm Sunday and will remember again this Friday, is perhaps the most stark and vivid example of human evil that Scripture gives us. On this day Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, the Divine Man, the only truly innocent human being in all of history (with the possible exception of his mother) was put to death by crucifixion, and through his torture, agony, and death, became a perfect sacrifice for the sins of the world. In his death all of us are implicated, for my sins, and yours, as much as those of David and Solomon, as much as those of Haman and Sennacherib, put him there.

I had the opportunity to attend Palm Sunday services at St. Paul's on K Street this weekend, a beautiful Anglo-Catholic church in D.C., presided over by a young priest named Fr. Nathan Humphrey. In the reading of the long Passion narrative (it was from St. Luke) I was struck by a few things. One of them was the reconciliation of Herod and Pilate.

"And Herod with his men of war set him at nought, and mocked him, and arrayed him in a gorgeous robe, and sent him again to Pilate. And the same day Pilate and Herod were made friends together: for before they were at enmity between themselves."

Herod and Pilate...what an unlikely pair of comrades. The hereditary monarch and the agent of a supposedly republican empire, the domestic ruler and the foreign procurator, the embodiment of decadent corruption and the embodiment of harsh and efficient militarism. Luke tells us that they hated each other and it's not hard to see why; they probably despised each other in the same sense that the French and Arab Algerians, or the Russians and Poles, or the British and Irish despised each other. A foreign army ruling over a cowed people in a backwater province tends not to have good relationships with its subjects. Yet they both found something common to bond over, in their shared response to Christ. They loved quite different things. Herod had given himself over to adultery and incest, to the sins of the flesh; Pilate had given over his soul to political and economic oppression, to the sins of the world. Yet the sins of the flesh and of the world both eventually trace their origin to the same place. Pilate and Herod were divided over what they loved, but they were united in their shared sense that Christ might be interesting, fascinating, worthy of interrogation- but at the last, he had to be killed.

Both of them are, in a sense, tragic figures, because they had the opportunity to redeem themselves, and came so close. Neither of them particularly hated Christ to begin with; Luke tells us that Herod tried to talk to him, and demanded to see miracles done in his presence, and St. John tells us how Pilate interviewed him and asked, with all the stylish weariness of a postmodern intellectual, 'What is truth?' Pilate had the chance to free Christ, as Herod had had the chance to free St. John the Baptist, but at the last they both embraced cowardice and their own darker impulses, and sent him to his death. And in the aftermath of that fateful decision, they became 'friends'.

We are told that this had happened earlier, as the Pharisees and the Herodians joined together to make common cause to put Jesus to death. "The Pharisees went out, and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him." Could there be a stranger friendship than that? The fiercely nationalistic Pharisees and the decadent, collaborationist Herodians? These two, again, loved very different things but were united by what, and by whom, they hated. In their shared contempt and fear of Christ, they were drawn together in a kind of diabolic simulacrum of friendship, united not by love but by hatred.

Because the nature of fallen man is that one of the quickest routes to friendship and popularity, and one of the quickest ways for people to bond, is through their mutual pleasure in hurting, putting down or excluding another person. This is the lesson that the tragedy of Phoebe Prince tells us. Why did so many young people in that school join together in tormenting her? Some of them probably took pleasure in it, but many more probably were more interested in seeming cool or popular, and knew that they could gain valuable popularity points by making a witty joke or a cutting remark at her expense. Others no doubt knew that by being loyal and sycophantic towards the cool kids, they could move closer to being accepted at least as part of the fringes of one of those high-status circles. All of them, whether through the hatred of the Herodians or the cowardice of Caiaphas, purchased their own popularity at the cost of someone else's suffering.

C.S. Lewis, in his essays and his great book "That Hideous Strength", talks a lot about the phenomenon of the Inner Circle. The desire to be well-liked, and to be part of the inner ring, to be welcomed, to belong, is at the heart of a great deal of childhood nastiness. It reached some quite ferocious heights in the boarding schools of his time, and in our own time it has reached even more terrible heights, as we saw this winter when Miss Prince was driven to kill herself by the cruel and callous taunting of her high school classmates. Lewis, in his aforementioned book, draws a connection between this phenomenon in the school environment, and its (generally) more influential and dangerous counterpart in the adult world. In business, in politics, in statesmanship, in the life of the mind, in the arts, we all know of people who are more than willing to bury their love for kindness, mercy, and truth in order to get ahead and to be welcomes as part of an in-group. For it's hard to build a genuine, cohesive in-group based in true love and dedication to pursuing something good; it's much easier to build one based on mocking and excluding those on the outside.

The world experienced this in a big way in the mid-20th century. It was often commented on at the time, and has often been remarked on since, how little the various Fascist powers had in common with each other. After all, what could possibly tie together men as different as Stepan Bandera, Mussolini, Franco, the Mufti of Jerusalem, Ezra Pound, Marshal Petain, Codreanu, assorted Christian clerics who gave their support to fascism, and Regent Horthy? Many people couldn't believe a Fascist alliance could last, as each country was fiercely nationalistic; wouldn't they all end up at each other's throats sooner or later? How could fanatical nationalists from traditional enemies like Hungary and Romania, or from Germany and France, or from Christian and Muslim clerical establishments, find themselves on the same team?

The answer is, of course, that they all stuck together for quite some time, because they all hated something more than they hated each other. While they all had quite different aspirations and goals, they shared one thing in common, their hatred of the Jews. Hatred of Socialism, and of the idea of a world of equality and justice, was part of it too, but above all, it was the hatred of the Jews that appealed to millions of people across Europe, inside and outside the German-speaking regions, and that for a few dark years seemed as though it would be the key to allowing the Nazi armies to become the world's dominant power, and to establish an empire of tyranny and mass murder that would last for many centuries. The Nazis knew what many of us then and now have forgotten, that hatred can be a stronger unifying and driving principle, and the basis of (at least in this world) tighter bonds between people and nations, than love, and that evil can constitute a kind of deeper and more lasting fraternity then good. Because, as we are told by the Beloved Disciple, the Enemy truly is 'prince of this world'.

This is just an example of a more general problem of our fallen world: that we so often seek friendship and community at the expense of others. As Orlando Patterson has argued, the idea of freedom grew out of the experience of slavery, and the great and classic prototypes of liberal democracy- the United States and ancient Greece- were built on the labor of slaves, worked to death for the pleasure of others. The American melting pot, that brought white people together from Slovakia and Greece, Germany and Italy, Ireland and England, and forged them into a unified people with a shared culture, did so by reminding them of one simple fact: that they weren't black and they weren't slaves. In their shared contempt for black people, and in part for the despised and dispossessed Native Americans, they all had something in common, and out of that bond came a kind of unholy brotherhood.

Christ came, among other things, to bring us out of ourselves and into friendship with one another, and just as his presence at the wedding in Cana sanctified marriage, his presence at the Last Supper, among his friends the Apostles, sanctified friendship. The medieval Grail romances call the Apostles the greatest society of friends that the world has ever known, and Christ presented his relationship with the apostles as the archetypical friendship: "Henceforth I call you not servants, for the servant knows not what his master doeth, but I call you friends....". Christ brought some very, very different groups of people into friendship with each other: uneducated fishermen and highly educated scholars, Roman centurions and pacifistic hermits, impoverished lepers and rich men like Joseph of Arimathea, pessimists like Thomas and optimists like John, Gentiles and Jews, and soon after his death Persians and Ethiopians, Germans and Arabs. In their shared love for Christ, and in the love that Christ taught them to show to one another, they saw each others as fellow travelers along the way, and that shared purpose made them into friends and brothers.

The enemies of Christ, too, had their own kind of brotherhood and their own commonalities. Herod and Pilate, the authorities of church and state, had little in common but were united by their enmity and contempt for the good. As in the twentieth century the great powers of Europe were happy to set aside their differences and form a mutual alliance based on contempt for socialism and the Jews, the powers of the first century set aside their differences when they saw, in Christ, something that they feared and disliked because of the threat that it posed to their way of life. Such 'brotherhoods' or 'friendships' may be ephemeral- they almost certainly are, because the city of man is ultimately divided against itself, because greed and hatred are ultimately divisive and not unitive, and because love cannot exist, in the last analysis, in a place from which the source of all goodness has removed Himself. The Persians, who more than any other nation believed that evil was a self-existent power, coeternal and coequal to good, nevertheless had the wisdom to see that in the long run, the defeat of evil is, and must be, assured. The mutual 'friendships' of men like Herod and Pilate, based on shared guilt and hatred, are ultimately unstable, and in the life to come, where all things good and evil achieve their true nature and measure, they will no longer be able to exist. In the here and now, however, such corrupt imitations of true love and true friendship can be powerful, long lasting, and can seem to triumph, for years and even centuries, powers of evil triumphed on Good Friday.

Most of us have experienced this phenomenon in a small way. One of my personal vices is gossip, and I've certainly, to my discredit, often told stories that I shouldn't have. Usually because they were good stories- but I suspect there was often a hidden motivation too, which was to make myself, as the storyteller, seem more interesting, as someone who had something to say, to enliven the conversation. Most of the gossip was harmless, and I've never betrayed things that were spoken in confidence, but there's a reason St. Paul tells us that gossip is a sin, and the reason is that almost inevitably we slide into revealing details- maybe inadvertently- that come at someone's expense. When we do this, to make ourselves seem more interesting or cool, we are, in a small way, trying to pursue friendship in an unhealthy and deformed way. Because true friendship, like that of Christ and John the Beloved, is based not on tearing other people down but on building them up, not on sarcastic or witty jokes at other's expense, but on the much harder and more difficult path of sharing mutual concern, mutual interests, and mutual dedication to a good cause. When we do this, in a small way, we become like Pilate, and recapitulate the sin for which Dante put him at the vestibule of hell, subtitled 'the Great Refuser'.

This is the lesson of the Passion, it's the lesson of tragedies like that of Phoebe Prince, and it's the lesson of the great evils of human history: that at a very deep level, we like to have someone to kick around, and that we can sometimes feel most united and like we are sharing something at the deepest level, when what we share comes at the expense of someone else's suffering. This is the evidence that at the core, something within us is corrupt. Good Friday is a great time to remember it, and to remember the depth and darkness of evil in this world. We can take comfort, though, in remembering that after Good Friday comes Easter Sunday, and that in the last analysis we can rest assured in the promise that- not today, or at anytime in this life, but in the great cosmic drama- good is ultimately stronger than evil, and life stronger than death.

Incarnate Word of God, you who spilt your blood on the cross for our salvation, have mercy on us. Have mercy especially on those of us like Phoebe Prince who suffer from oppression and abuse, as you suffered; unite their suffering to yours, and as they share in your pain and death let them share in your resurrection and in your eternal kingdom, where there is no more death, no more sorrow, no more mourning, and no more tears. Amen.


Sunday, March 14, 2010

"Take thy stand upon the summit of the temple...."

The second temptation of Our Lord (actually the third, in Luke) is a very interesting one. The three temptations can, in general, be taken to correspond to physical, intellectual, and spiritual temptations. Or they can be associated with the three sources of temptation in Christian liturgy, called picturesquely the World, the Flesh, and the Devil. This second temptation, the offer to demonstrate His Divinity through a spectacular miracle, corresponds to mental temptation, and to the temptations of the World.

"And [the Devil] brought him to Jerusalem, and set him on a pinnacle of the temple, and said unto him, If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down from hence: For it is written, He shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee: And in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone. And Jesus answering said unto him, It is said, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God." Luke 4:9-12.

Tradition suggests that the 'pinnacle of the temple' (literally, 'little wing') did not correspond to the actual highest point in the temple, but rather to the roof of Solomon's portico, a point on the southeast wall of the Temple overlooking the Kidron Valley and the Judaean Desert (some translations use 'parapet' instead of 'pinnacle'). Eusebius of Caesarea, in his 'Church History', tells us that this was the very parapet on which James the Just, the cousin* of Jesus Christ and the first Bishop of Jerusalem, would be made to stand on the day of his execution. The early authorities, quoted by Eusebius, tell us that the Jerusalem authorities said to St. James, "Take thy stand, then, upon the summit of the temple, that from that elevated spot thou mayest be clearly seen, and thy words may be plainly audible to all the people," thus seeking his support in putting down the nascent Christian movement through publicly denying Christ. James, however, when faced with temptation on the self-same parapet on which his cousin had stood some forty years earlier, chose this moment to confess his faith, and to declare that 'Christ Himself sitteth in heaven, at the right hand of the Great Power, and shall come on the clouds of heaven." And having confessed his faith at the last, he was thrown down from the temple wall, and his broken body was stoned at the foot of the temple.

The story of Christ's temptation was certainly circulating in 69 AD when St. James was killed, as the Gospel of Luke had probably been written many years earlier, and so it's near certain that St. James knew of this story, and that it was running through his mind as he was faced with such a similar temptation to that which his cousin, Our Lord, had faced forty years earlier. As Christ had been tempted to test his faith in the Father, St. James was tempted to deny his faith in God the Son, and with the example of Our Lord in his mind, he chose to honour his faith rather than betray it. History moves in cycles, and repeats itself in strange and mysterious ways; Marx said, 'first as tragedy, the second time as farce', but there was nothing farcical about the martyrdom of James.

This second temptation has a curiously modern ring, not least because it is an intellectual temptation, appealing to an intellectual age which more and more seems to have lost its faith. Asking for evidence of the existence of God is a perfectly legitimate endeavour, but too often we ask without any hope of hearing a positive answer, and already half-convinced in his heart that He isn't there. The Enemy was asking Jesus to do something similar- to ask for proof of God's presence and favour not at some vague time in the future, but here and now. He was asking Jesus to challenge God to reveal himself, to _demand_ proof instead of humbly awaiting for it. And if we approach God in that spirit, we haven't yet taken the steps outside ourselves, and the steps into a state of humility and recognition of our own smallness, that allow us to perceive Him. God doesn't reveal himself to us in our states of demanding pride, but in our moments of humble dependence. Jesus already had proofs of God's favour, for example during His baptism in the Jordan; what the Enemy was tempting him to do was to forget what he knew, to abandon his experiences of the divine presence and favour that he had had in the past, and to wilfully choose to give in to his doubts.

God the Father had given plenty of evidences of His favour to Jesus Christ over the last thirty years of his life; what He hadn't given was any evidence that he would preserve His Son from death. It was hinted at in the Persians' gift of the myrrh, but Jesus had had no previous reason to believe, prior to the Passion, that God would preserve him and allow him to triumph over death. This was necessary; for if Christ was to remain perfect Man as well as perfect God up until 'all was finished', it was necessary for him to remain perfect in all human virtues including the virtue of faith, and for that reason it was necessary that he not know, for sure, whether death would be the end for him (for none of us really know this, until we finally experience death itself). If Christ had given into the Enemy's temptation and thrown himself off the parapet, one of two things would have happened. Either he would have known, for sure, that God would protect him, and he couldn't have experienced the Cross in doubt and agony, and thus could not have participated fully in the human experience. Or at that moment the hypostatic union would have ended, and the entire purpose of the Incarnation would have been obviated. And either way, the Enemy would have won.

This second temptation tells us that the Enemy, too, can quote scripture to his purpose. Here he does so by taking a verse from the Psalms of David out of context, ignoring the fact that it refers to accidents, not to deliberately suicidal falls, and ignoring the broader message that 'you shall not test the Lord thy God'. Scripture taken out of context can be a dangerous thing, indeed, and it takes discernment to recognize it and refute it; the same wisdom and discernment that Jesus showed when he answered the Enemy's temptation with a quotation from Deuteronomy.

If we wait, and hope, for a sign from God, I think that we will eventually receive one, just as the Magi received the sign they had so long sought on the day of the Epiphany. But we will never receive the signs we seek unless we lay our hearts truly open to them; and the first step in making our hearts open to God is by ceasing to demand, ceasing to try to receive proof on our schedule, but awaiting those glimpses of the Divine that He chooses, in his own time and in his own way, to give us. The first step in achieving wisdom is, as Mary Doria Russell says in her great science-fiction books, is to recognize that 'I don't understand' is not the same thing as 'This doesn't make sense', and to recognize our own ignorance and smallness in the face of the mysteries of the universe. To seek God in a spirit of challenge, self-confidence, and intellectual pride, as if we are _entitled_ to a miracle, as if we can _demand_ a sign whenever we want one, is to not even begin to take the first step outside ourselves that would be essential to really knowing God. Like friendship, and like love, and like wisdom, you will never receive wonder and awe if you seek it for its own sake. That's the path of those who try to artificially construct mystical experiences through using hallucinogenic drugs; all they can ever get is a pale shadow of the real mystical communion with the Divine. The greatest mystical experience of which we have record, the great apocalyptic vision of John of Patmos, came to him one day after he had finished saying Mass to his congregation. For 'the wind blows where it will', and we cannot demand or expect a revelation of God in any particular moment; all we can do is be hopeful, and faithful, and wait for Him one day to reveal himself, whether it be through a still small voice or through the skies opening and the throne of God being revealed. It is in waiting, and hoping, that we experience God, and the attempt to short cut this process, to artificially seek miracles on demand, is precisely the temptation that the Enemy offered to our Lord in the wilderness, and that in His wisdom and faith he rejected, and through that rejection overcame a second time the sinful nature that afflicts all of us, and took us a step closer to our salvation.

Glory to you, Lord Christ, who in the desert experienced the temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil, and overcame them all. Praise to you, Lord Christ, who as a good shepherd wills not that a single one of your flock be lost, and shed your precious blood not merely for all of us but for each of us. All honour to you, Lord Christ, who thought never for a moment of your own good, but devoted the three years of your ministry to healing the sick, feeding the hungry, and heralding the coming of the Kingdom of God. Have mercy on us sinners, in all time of our tribulation and in all time of our prosperity, in the hour of our death and in the day of our judgment. Lamb of God, have mercy on us, and deliver us from all evil, now and in the life to come. Amen.

*You will hear some people call James the biological brother of Jesus, and thus deny the perpetual virginity of Mary the Mother of God. They are wrong. St. James and Jude are best understood as cousins of Jesus; Our Lady remained ever virgin, after as well as before the birth of Our Lord.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

"Not by bread alone...."

"And the devil said unto him, If thou be the Son of God, command this stone that it be made bread. And Jesus answered him, saying, It is written, That man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God." Luke 4:3-4.

This first temptation recalls a number of other episodes throughout the scriptures. Most clearly, it's a recapitulation of the commandment given to the first couple in the garden, to fast from a particular fruit. (This is myth, not history, of course, and Adam and Eve didn't literally exist; it is, though, a myth charged with meaning. It would have immense and invaluable meaning even as a totally fictional story, if its purpose was to foreshadow Christ. Adam was the myth, the shadow; Christ was the truth, the substance). It also recalls the manna in the wilderness, and it foreshadows the feeding of the five thousand, and the miracle of the Eucharist in which Christ transforms the sacramental bread and wine into His Body and Precious Blood.

Why would Christ refuse this temptation? And what sets it apart from the miracle that he did carry out, the multiplication of the loaves and the fishes to feed five thousand people? Several things. First of all, the Enemy, in his diabolic and malevolent wisdom, knew that he could not tempt Christ with evil things, or with the base things of this world; he had to tempt Him with good things. This is the form that temptation so often takes, the choosing of a lesser good in preference to a higher good. As St. Augustine puts it, sins are misdirected virtues.

Bread is a good thing; what the Enemy offered Christ was sin because it consisted in choosing the good of bread at the wrong time, under the wrong circumstances, in such a way that it would have ruined the very purpose for which Christ had come to earth. And as sin taints and sullies even its own satisfaction, the very taste of the bread would have become sour in His mouth, and burning in His stomach, as he realised that in accepting that first temptation in the desert, He had vitiated the reason for which he had been born on earth, and deepened the rift between God and Man. For the enemy loves to tempt us to sin and then turn the pleasure of the sin to cardboard on our tongue, to win our souls and give us nothing in return. The Lord, of course, works quite differently, for he is the source from which all good things come. No truly good thing, in the fulness of time, will be denied to those who wait. The day would come when Christ was given the power to turn stones into bread, but in the desert, as he trembled in front of the Enemy, and as all creation was quiet as it awaited for his answer, the answer on which our salvation depended, his time had not yet come, and he knew it.

Not merely an issue of timing was involved. Christ had the power to multiply bread for the feeding of others, and to turn water to wine to enliven a wedding festivity. But He would not use his powers for mere selfish gain, not even when he hungered in the desert and longed for bread, or when He hung on the cross, crying out, "I thirst" (John 19:28), and had to be given a few drops of sour wine on a sponge. He who endured in his own body, the piercing of hands and feet, nevertheless had such compassion on the wounds of others that in the very night before he was crucified he healed the ear of the soldier wounded by St. Peter. He who descended to hell in the day of his death, nevertheless as he hung dying, remembered the repentant thief next to him and promised him, 'This day shalt thou be with me in paradise' (Luke 23:43). No doubt he was often sick, and hungry, but the Gospels give us no accounts of any occasions on which he healed himself, or fed himself (and surely such an occasion would have been startling enough, and worthy of inclusion in a historical and apologetic account). He was always dependent on the charity of others, and on the good fortune that God the Father sent his way. He no doubt led a very hard life, one whose hardships were not limited to the Passion, for it was foretold that he would be "a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief" (Isaiah 53:3). The Enemy, for his part, is relentlessly focused on himself, and strives to devour and consume all things, to gather them and direct them towards his own pride and self-gratification. In contrast the nature of God is to love, to be other-centered, and to spread His affection and compassion to others; for the very nature of God is a community of Persons united to each other in the bonds of perfect love, within the Holy, Consubstantial, and Indissoluble Trinity; thus Augustine says of the Trinity, "But love is of some one that loves, and with love something is loved. Behold, then, there are three things: he that loves, and that which is loved, and love", and these three things correspond to the Persons of the Trinity. God is always, relentlessly, focused on the good of the other, on sharing his goodness and his perfection with those he has created. This was why he created our world, this was why he chose the angels for honour and glory, this was why he watched over our evolution as a species and, in time, blessed us with immortal souls, and this was why when He took human form, and was born as a man, he had no thought for himself, but only for others. For he told his followers, "Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment?" (Matthew 6:25) and we cannot suppose that he, perfect God and perfect Man, commanded something other of His disciples then the code he lived by himself.

A third thing, too, differentiates the miracle of the loaves and the fishes from the temptation that Christ was offered in the desert by the Enemy, and which He rejected. At Bethsaida, Our Lord did not turn stones into bread: rather he multiplied bread, turning five loaves into many "And Jesus took the loaves; and when he had given thanks, he distributed to the disciples, and the disciples to them that were set down; and likewise of the fishes as much as they would" (John 6:11). This is the nature of the work that God does in this world. He makes use of His own creation, and of the work that His creatures have done. His miracle was dependent on the labour that farmers, bakers, and fishermen had done in preparing the loaves and fishes; he took advantage of their labour and made use of it, multiplying it and transforming it to achieve something they could never have achieved on their own. But his work was dependent on theirs, and had they refused to catch the fish or to grow the wheat He would not have done it for them. For God lives by the rules he himself has set down, and one of those rules is that He will not supplant our free will, and that though he will work hand in hand with us, our cooperation and assent is as necessary to His work of healing and salvation as the grace that he sends down from heaven. This is why people who expect God to solve the problems in this world with a snap of His fingers are so tragically wrong. He can do anything with us and for us, but He demands our labour and cooperation as well. As the Muslim proverb goes, if we take two steps towards God, He runs a mile towards us, but we need to take those steps to begin with.

Discernment, and the ability to tell whether we are being called to do something good or something evil, is a vital ability, and something fraught with risk. But whenever we are faced with such a challenge, we can do no better than to search our own consciences, and look to the example of Jesus. He who was willing to do the work that his Father gave him in transforming little bread into much bread to feed others, was unwilling to accept the Enemy's temptation to transform stones into bread to feed his own needs. And in that difference we can see some of the clues that can help us distinguish good and evil in our own lives, and in the world. Let us all try to remember the nature of temptation, this Lent, and strive to overcome it.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

A second year's reflection on the Temptations of our Lord

The season of Lent- called by our Orthodox brothers and sisters, 'Great Lent'- has many purposes, but one of the most important of them is to commemorate the Temptation of Christ, the forty days that Christ spent in the desert, being tempted by the devil.

As I said last year, Luke is the most historically minded of the Gospel writers, and as Christians we are bound to accept this account as historical. Our Lord was not merely subjected to a symbolical temptation: he was really tempted, in a real desert, by a real dark spiritual power, he who was called 'the prince of this world' by St. John the Evangelist. Many Christians nowadays seek (for reasons that are beyond me) to deny the reality of the devil, but as Archbishop Charles Chaput said last year, "If we do not believe in the devil, sooner or later we will not believe in God." This is because when we deny the reality of spiritual evil, of any basic constituent of reality that is opposed to and antithetical to God, we are quickly led to blame the evil that we see around us, not on the devil but on God, and we quickly start to perceive that such a God cannot be worthy of worship. Denying the reality of supernatural evil makes not easier, but more difficult to account for real, perceptible evil, and it strengthens the force of the Problem of Evil, the rock on which the ship of faith of so many people has foundered. As Bulgakov put it in his classic work "The Master and Margarita", the existence of evil, and specifically of supernatural evil, constitutes the 'seventh proof' of the existence of God, and to deny the existence of supernatural evil is a step towards denying the existence of supernatural good.

The episode of the temptation of Christ is one of those stories that is impossible to categorize. Before I was a Christian, when I encountered the Gospels for the first time this was one of the stories which most captivated me and which I found most haunting- and most challenging. This story reads something like a myth, and indeed there are myths somewhat similar to it in the stories of Zoroaster and the Buddha. But it appears in the middle of a narrative that's unquestionably meant as literal history. Luke begins the third chapter of his Gospel in this way: "Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judaea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of Ituraea and of the region of Trachonitis, and Lysanias the tetrarch of Abilene, Annas and Caiaphas being the high priests....." which tells us that he is not intendeing that we take this as a murky myth out of the depths of the unknown past. St. Luke is paying scrupulous attention to historical and chronological detail, and leaves us in no doubt that he intends to say that these events really happened, just as the events described in yesterday's 'New York Times' really happened.

The Gospels are too mythical to be taken as mere history, and too historical to be taken as mere myth. They are both, simultaneously, the Myth made Fact, as Our Lord was the Word made Flesh. The supernatural and moral elements to the story of Our Lord's temptation are not something superimposed on the story, they are intrinsic to it, and in the temptation of Christ we see, in perfect clarity, the everlasting and eternal struggle between good and evil, between the supernatural forces of light and of darkness. But at the same time, the historical details of this account are not extrinsic or incidental to its meaning either. This isn't just the story of one example of the cosmic struggle of good and evil, such that if the temptation had gone differently there would have been others. This was the moment on which our salvation depended, the moment when Christ was faced with the same choice that had faced the first conscious and spiritually aware human beings, when they had to choose between submission or rebellion, and when he rejected the same temptation that they had accepted. As God the Word, begotten of the Father before all the ages, became incarnate at a specific moment in history, of a particular woman in a particular home, so the struggle for our salvation, between God and his Enemy, took form and shape in a particular episode of forty days' duration in the Palestinian desert. It was not for nothing that Milton focused his 'Paradise Regained' not on the Passion or the Resurrection but on the Temptation. Because this was the moment when for the first time in human history, the human and the divine wills became perfectly aligned, and when for the first time in history, human nature, in the form of the perfect Man, was restored to what it had been intended to be. "Therefore he renews these things in himself, uniting man to the Spirit," said Irenaeus of Lyons and by his obedience reversed the damage that had been done by human disobedience. And at no time was this clearer than during the temptation in the desert.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.