Christ in the Wilderness: Lent – the Season of Preparation – Luke 4: 1-2.

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where for forty days He was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, He was famished. (Gospel of Luke chapter 4: verses 1-2)

In the extraordinary painting  below, we see Jesus after He was led into the desert wilderness by the Holy Spirit. He is surrounded by rocks and sand. He sits on a boulder, hands in front of Him. His eyes are filled with the knowledge of reality, of passions, power, and pain, ego and emptiness, sin and self aggrandizement.

This painting may move us from the awareness that in the desert wilderness Jesus is not only thinking through His ministry, Passion, and death but is also viewing our lives – our ministries, our passions, our death.

What do we see?

Let us examine His face.

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We see the seriousness of the forthcoming temptations; the physical, mental, and the spiritually violent struggle with the devil. It is written plainly upon His emaciated face.

We see the irrefutable fact of Jesus’ humanity.

We see that He is like unto us, except for sin.

This is the face of our Savior; but the victory is not His, yet.

His temptations, public ministry, Passion, and death are still to occur.

What do we see?

We see a man who knows His Mind. He knows His Body, Soul, and Spirit.

He knows His freely accepted duty to accomplish His Father’s will.

This is not the face of a defeated man. It is the face of a determined man who is also Lord and Savior.

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Observe Christ’s clenched hands, gaze deeply into His eyes, and you will see the artist’s portrayal of a Savior that is already, at the beginning of His ministry, aware of the viciousness of the tempter and the burden of our sins. Sins accepted by Him, and through His Passion and death, makes all things new.

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Jesus had to confront in that desert assault whether or not He was going to be faithful to His mission.

The Gospel passage above challenges us with the same questions: are we going to be faithful to the Commandments, to our Baptismal promises, to the mission given us in Confirmation to live and practice the truths that He taught us?

Are we going to be faithful to the spiritual power and grace given to us, not just when we feel like it, but even in the most difficult of circumstances?

As disciples of Christ we are on a daily basis constantly revolving around the axis of temptation and sin – faith and grace. We understand that temptation, in and of itself, is a test – it is not sin. It is only sin when we willfully place ourselves in its shackles, when we give into its fueled power to overwhelm our body and soul. That power  – a deadly power – obtains its animus and energy from the original tempter and liar – Lucifer himself.

Hell is real. It is not a mental construct. To say that it doesn’t exist is to call Jesus a liar, and His Passion, death, and Resurrection meaningless.

Jesus the Christ lived heroically in the face of Hell’s demons and witnessed to the power of God’s grace.

But you say, I am not Jesus Christ, I am a weak man or woman, boy or girl.

I say true, we all are; but by virtue of our faithful reception of the Holy Sacraments (Holy Mysteries) of Reconciliation (Penance/Confession) and the Holy Eucharist we have the power of Christ’s grace within us. A power, freely given by God and unmerited by us, to resist and overcome temptation and sin.

If we do sin – if we do “miss the mark” – we have a remedy.  We follow St. Paul’s advice: pick yourself up, dust yourself off (confess your sins), and confidently continue on your journey. We must do our part in cooperation with God’s love and mercy.

The Season of Lent is a time of joyful repentance, prayer, and fasting.

Let’s remember the  words of Nehemiah, who in the Hebrew Scriptures says: Today is holy to the Lord your God. Do not be sad, and do not weep; for today is holy to our Lord. Do not be saddened this day, for rejoicing in the Lord must be your strength! (Nehemiah 8: 9-10. 5th century BC)

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The painting above was created and completed in the late 19th century by Ivan Kramskoi. He was a gifted Russian painter, noted portraitist, draughtsman, and teacher. The painting is entitled Christ in the Wilderness.

Copyright © 2011- 2019 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved. Portions of this essay may be used in accordance with correct notation and bibliographical insertion; contact deaconiacono@icloud.com for more information or questions.

The Meaning of Lent: Repentance and Renewal

The following is a homily that was delivered at St. Francis of Assisi Church and St. Romuald Chapel in Wakefield, Rhode Island USA by Deacon Paul O. Iacono on the weekend of the 5th Sunday of Lent –  March 16/17, 2013.

Last week’s Gospel related the story of the prodigal son; this week the prodigal daughter stands before us.

These two people start with dissent against authority and its commands. Their actions led to life altering, almost near death experiences. They end their self-destructive journey with a conversion that speaks to all repentant sinners of the availability of the astonishing love, mercy, and forgiveness of God.

In last week’s Gospel, the merciful father pardons his prodigal son; today, God’s merciful Son pardons the sinful daughter.

Last week, the oldest son questioned the father’s reasoning; today, the Jewish elders question Jesus’ reasoning, and He responds to this challenge with questions of His own.

Jesus’ first challenge is to the mob: “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”

This inquisitive command forces even the most proud and dogmatic of them into uncomfortable moments of self-reflection, and to see in that mirror their own sins – which results in their silently walking away.

Then Jesus turns, and looks at the woman – twenty-four hours earlier she was beautiful and appealing. What does He see now?  A woman whose feet were bloodied from running in panic through the streets, clothes torn, hair askew, mind and heart filled with panic at her impending death.

Her defiance of the 6th Commandment was gone; as she was running for her life defiance gave way to abject terror and remorse, and when finally caught, her grief gave way to despair.

In lust’s name, she had betrayed married love – publicly humiliated and publicly condemned – she stood surrounded by the mob – waiting for the first rock to be thrown – staring alternately at Jesus and the ground.

But, Jesus’ second challenge is to the woman herself. His challenge doesn’t wound her, rather, she comes into full contact with Jesus’ Sacred Heart. His words, spoken from His heart – caresses her heart; and as their eyes meet He says:    “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and sin no more.”

Stunned with disbelief she must have stood there for a few moments, staring into Jesus’ eyes, the realization of His forgiveness washing over her – her heart filled with a new sense of hope and an overwhelming awareness of the invitation to live in His love and mercy.

The woman caught in adultery was blinded by her own lust, caught in the web of darkness she was unable to hear and speak to God, yet, what does Jesus do?

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He opens her eyes and ears; He gives her interior light; He covers her nakedness with a mantle of love and mercy and renews her ability to live a life that respects the laws of God.

At that moment Jesus blessed the adulterous woman with all the graces that are available to us in the Sacrament of Reconciliation

In the stories of the prodigal son and daughter, we have a new awareness that in our own ways, we too, are prodigals; and relief – relief in the knowledge that when we do Sacramentally repent, and attempt to sin no more, we receive extraordinary graces and the invitation to live in the love of divine mercy.

This is the meaning of Lent my brothers and sisters. For it teaches us that we have no reason to fear Christ – no reason to fear reconciliation with Him – for He freely offers us His Sacramental strength so that we may walk in His freedom, be renewed, and become more like Him.

Like the prodigal son and daughter, let us put aside our sinful ways, and grasp the hand of our merciful God in Sacramental Confession. Let us trust in Him; for Jesus’ love is vast and the waters of His mercy, to those who repent, continually refresh and satisfy our deepest longings to rest in Him.

Copyright © 2011- 2013 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved. Notes on painting: The above artwork is a preliminary sketch by Rembrandt for his finished painting on Christ and the  Woman Taken in Adultery (1644). I thank art historian Gary Schwartz for providing an image of that sketch at his website: www.garyschwartzarthistorian.nl/. Rembrandt’s finished painting is now displayed at the National Gallery in London, England.  

A Decisive Hour for American Catholics

As we approach the conclusion of the Fortnight for Freedom, we draw near to the decisive hour, an hour of decision in the history of our great nation; an hour which truly challenges  American Catholics’ sense of discipleship.

It has been a fortnight in which our bishops have asked us to reflect upon our liberties, our history, and our current state of affairs. If you have thought about these issues at all you know that our history has not lied in this case: America is a nation that was built upon reverence for God, His natural law, and respect for the primacy of individual conscience and religious tradition.

In 1636, one hundred forty years before Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence, the founder of the little colony of Rhode Island, Roger Williams, made freedom of conscience and religion the keystone of his community.

In 1776, The Declaration of Independence, and in 1789 the Constitution of the United States, all clearly stated the limitations of government; and in 1791, the Bill of Rights, carefully enunciated the rights of each individual citizen – the first right being, freedom of religion.

James Madison, a delegate to the Constitutional Convention and its secretary and recorder, described the legitimacy of conscience as “the most sacred of all property.” (1)   He wrote, “The religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as they may dictate.” (2)

George Washington wrote, “the establishment of civil and religious liberty was the motive that induced [him] to the field of battle.” (3)

In 1804, President Thomas Jefferson assured the Ursuline Sisters of Louisiana – who had, for seventy-seven years, been serving an indigenous population by operating schools, hospitals, and an orphanage – that the principles of the Constitution were a “sure guarantee” that their ministry would be free “to govern itself according to its own voluntary rules, without, interference from the civil authority.” (4)

This is a matter of history. It is not a matter of conjecture, dispute, or equivocation; yet it is clear that the vast majority of our current state and federal government leaders do not accept this understanding of what the founding fathers of our nation wrote, lived, and established as our heritage.

So, we are at a decisive hour – an hour of decision – an hour that will determine the depth of our discipleship and test our understanding of who we are as American Catholics.

Many pundits, commentators, and yes even Catholic politicians, have remarked that there is nothing to worry about with this now Supreme Court approved Health Care Law. Yet our Church leaders – our bishops – are united in telling us that there is something drastically wrong with this law.

The American bishops have been united and clear on this issue and they clearly tell us that the Fortnight for Freedom has been about getting American Catholics – all 52 million of us – to understand that our federal government will force our Church to provide for certain types of medical procedures even though it is in direct violation of our collective conscience. My brothers and sisters, the Federal government’s actions are wrong and must be opposed.

So society may ask, “What do you want?”

Our Church responds, we respond, that as Catholics we ask nothing more than what Saints Peter and Paul and all the martyred saints and true disciples of Jesus Christ wanted; and as Americans we want nothing more than what Roger Williams, George Washington, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson and all true American statesmen and women have wanted: the right to follow our conscience, worship our God as we see fit, and to live out our faith by making a contribution within the public square.

We ask nothing more of our government than what our history has told us is our patrimony, our heritage: our blessed liberties.

This is a decisive hour – for it is the hour of discipleship in Christ Jesus. We must not shrink back in fear; for our sense of commitment to our nation’s heritage, and our loyalty to Jesus Christ and our Church, demands that we do not compromise on this issue.

We believe that all Americans, of all religious persuasions, and not just Federal or state government, must be allowed to have a contribution to the common good as prescribed by their faith and sense of duty. This is a liberty that has always been granted under our system of laws – until, until this critical moment in time.

So you may ask, “What do we do?”

We rise up my brothers and sisters and use all the law abiding and peaceful means at our disposal to inform our elected officials of this singular outrage against freedom of conscience. If they don’t address and rectify our concerns – we must remember it, and respond accordingly when we select our state and federal representatives. We can do no less.

Let us pray that through the intercession of the Holy Spirit we may have the courage to act as disciples of Christ – peaceful, courageous, and steadfast in the face of imperial tyranny.

Copyright © 2012 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved

Quotations taken from: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty – their document: Our First, Most Cherished Liberty – A Statement on Religious Liberty

1. James Madison, “Property,” March 29, 1792, in The Founding Fathers, Eds. Philip B. Kurland and Ralph Lerner (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1987) accessed March 27, 2012. http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/v1ch16s23.html.

2.  James Madison, “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessment,” June 20, 1785, in The Founding Fathers, accessed March 27, 2012. http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/amendI_religions43.html.

3. Michael Novak and Jana Novak, Washington’s God, 2006.

4. Anson Phelps Stokes, Church and State in the United States (Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1950), 678.