The Third Sunday in Lent
The Gospel. St. Luke 11. 14.
At that time; Jesus was casting out a devil, and it was dumb. And it came to pass, when the devil was gone out, the dumb spake ; and the people wondered. But some of them said : He casteth out devils through Beelzebub, the chief of the devils. And others tempting him, sought of him a sign from heaven. But he, knowing their thoughts, said unto them : Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation ; and a house divided against a house falleth. If Satan also be divided against himself, how shall his kingdom stand? Because ye say, that I cast out devils through Beelzebub. And if I by Beelzebub cast out devils, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore shall they be your judges. But if I with the finger of God, cast out devils, no doubt the kingdom of God is come upon you. When a strong man armed, keepeth his palace, his goods are in peace ; but when a stronger that he shall come upon him, and overcome him, he taketh from him all his armor wherein he trusteth, and divideth the spoils. He that is not with me is against me ; and he that gathereth not with me scattereth. When the unclean spirit is gone out of a man, he walketh through dry places, seeking rest; and finding none, he saith: I will return unto my house whence I came out. And when he cometh, he findeth it swept and garnished. Then goeth he and taketh to him seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter in, and dwell there ; and the last state of that man is worse that the first. And it came to pass, as he spake these things, a certain woman of the company lifted up her voice, and said unto him : Blessed is the womb that bare thee, and the paps which thou hast sucked. But he said : Yea rather, blessed are they that hear the word of God, and keep it.
Well, here we are in the third week of Lent; and I am going to confidently assume that not only have we all long since determined what we will be “giving up” for Lent, but that we are also maintaining our personal disciplines with all due diligence. Let’s take a moment and congratulate ourselves on our success to date. OK, moments over. Now let’s get on to the next issue; what do we do next?
Odd question, isn’t it? After all, the whole point of our Lenten fast is to prepare for Our Lord’s Passion, Death and Resurrection, isn’t it? So wouldn’t it make sense to presume that once we have fulfilled our vows of self-denial that the next logical step is to simply await the events of Holy Week? By maintaining our disciplines, haven’t we already done all the preparation that is necessary?
Well, no, not really. At least, not completely. You see, it’s all very well and good that we have been “good Catholics”, denying ourselves of one or more of our well-enjoyed vices. These actions have the effect of cleansing; through the denial of some pleasurable food or beverage, we eliminate from our lives at least some small portion of the carnal affections that constantly afflict us.
But this cleansing action leaves an open spot, much as the act of “Spring Cleaning” a house leaves some space unused. And as we all know, unless we follow up on this house cleaning, the open space will again become filled with all manner of “stuff”. And we usually find that this new “stuff” consists of things that we never really wanted in the first place, and it even kind of looks like the old “stuff” we just got rid of!
This is one of those age-old problems that constantly afflicts the Church; just how do these Christians display the change in their lives that is supposedly brought about by their Faith? In other words, we have “chosen” not to be pagans or secularists, or Buddhists, or Mohammedans, or what have you, because we believe that Faith in Christ is a life-changing experience; one that guides us on the path to Eternal Life. So how is this change exhibited?
Now before you start thinking that I’m going to run through that same old list of what we ought to be doing as Christians, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, etc., let me assure you that this is not what I am going to focus on today. Rather, I want to focus on those actions that reflect the change our Faith has on our lives in relation to our Lenten disciplines. Or, put another way, “so we give up something for Lent; with what do we replace it”?
This is a valid question. No matter what we give up for Lent, be it eating chocolate or drinking coffee, or what have you, these things take time to do. How do we replace that time? Do we spend it contemplating how we would really like that bit of sweet right now? Do we spend it trying to find a way to replace the caffeine intake that we think is so necessary? Or do we spend it in some activity that takes us back to the service of God?
This relates to the analogy that Our Lord makes in today’s Gospel lesson. Our first act as Christians, just like our actions during Lent, is to purge ourselves of those things that are of “the devil and all his works, the vain pomp and glory of the world, with all covetous desires of the same, and the sinful desires of the flesh” (BCP, pg 276). Indeed, during Lent, just as at our Baptism, we are sweeping our house clean and garnishing it; making it fresh and ready to receive something more glorious.
Next, of course, is to take in, to welcome, that more glorious thing. That thing is the reading of Scripture. That thing is daily prayer. That thing is learning more about the history and patrimony of our Church. That thing is not only attending Mass on Sunday, but also Stations of the Cross and Benediction on Fridays. That thing is about filling our lives with the things that are of God, using them to replace the “stuff” that we have swept out of our house.
Wow, this seems like a lot of work, doesn’t it? First, we have to give up things that we like very much (and look forward to enjoying again on Easter Day!), but now we also need to fill the time with some other “churchy” activity? Why bother, when we know that in just 21 days, we can go back to our chocolate and our coffee and all will be right with the world again?
Very good. We have swept and garnished the house, but we have left our souls empty; not only do we leave the door open for the devil to enter in again, but we invite him in! And as Christ has told us, the devil will come in even greater strength than before.
I cannot overemphasize the danger here. If all we do during the forty days of Lent is grit our teeth and determinedly focus on that day when we can once again enjoy those little “vices”, then Satan has won a victory. And when we repeat this same “discipline” year after year, he will seize this opportunity all the more. It is said that nature abhors a vacuum; well, so does Satan. And you may be sure that he will be more than happy to fill it with all manner of “stuff”.
He will fill it by playing on our desire for that piece of chocolate or sip of coffee. He will make our craving for these things more intense, even as we continue to deny them. And he will make our experience of these things even more enjoyable when next we partake of them. Just think about how really good that first bite of chocolate tastes after having gone without for forty days!
In other words, Satan will do anything to keep us from focusing on the Word of God. He will distract us from the task of enriching ourselves spiritually, by enhancing our perception of those things that bring us physical pleasure. He will ensure that we leave an empty space for him by trying to turn our focus away from God. And the more we allow this, the more we forget to focus on the Word of God, year after year, the easier it becomes for Satan to do his job. Oh yes, he will fill that empty space; and he might even say “thank you” to us for cleaning out a spot for him in the first place.
Now I’m not saying that we shouldn’t again enjoy those little pleasures of taste, but if our sole focus during Lent is regaining those little pleasures, then Satan has won. If, in the course of our Lenten fast, we do not add some measure of increased devotion to God, then we leave ourselves open to attack. If we sweep and garnish our houses through the denial of some seemingly minor “vice”, but do not fill that space with the Word of God, then we may be sure that Satan will return in force, and fill it. and the last state of that man is worse that the first.
And so, yes, it is indeed a good and worthy thing that we should deny ourselves some luxury or temptation during Lent. It is by such denial that we bring our bodies under subjection, as St. Paul tells us we should do. It is by such denial that we show that we can free ourselves from slavery to earthly things. It is by such denial that we may cleanse ourselves in preparation for Our Lord’s Passion. It is by such denial that we perform our spiritual “Spring Cleaning”. But as we “clean our house”, as we rid ourselves of that unwanted “stuff” that clutters up our spiritual lives, we must remember to fill the space that we have created with the Word of God.