1st Sunday of Lent (A)
Picture : cc smif
My dear friends, have you ever heard of people who are mysteriously found dead in their cars, with the air conditioner on, and the engine running? Do you know how they are killed? In most cases, these people don’t actually set out to commit suicide. Very likely it all begins with a temptation. A temptation that, I must confess, I myself have felt. Perhaps they are tired. And the weather is hot. So rather than suffer in the heat, they decide to take a nap. While enjoying the cool breeze produced by the car’s AC. But, unfortunately for them, the exhaust fumes must have somehow leaked into the car while they slept. And suffocated them.
And we know how this suffocation takes place. By a colourless, odourless, and tasteless gas called carbon monoxide. As you know, healthy blood contains a protein called haemoglobin. Which allows the blood to carry oxygen throughout the body. Oxygen that the body needs to survive. But once carbon monoxide is inhaled, it poisons the blood by clinging to the haemoglobin. Preventing it from absorbing oxygen. It’s as though the carbon monoxide snatches the breath from the body. Suffocating it. And killing the person.
So this is more or less how those unfortunate people are killed. It involves three steps. First they are tempted by something good. Or apparently better than what nature offers. The cool breeze in the car. Instead of the hot and humid air outdoors. But then, unintentionally, they get poisoned by something else that the car produces: carbon monoxide. And, as a result, they are suffocated to death. Temptation, poisoning and death. Three steps by which they lose their life. Have their breath snatched away from them.
Now, there is, of course, no mention of cars or carbon monoxide in our our readings today. But there is a reference to something that kills people spiritually. Something that the second reading calls sin. Sin entered the world… and through sin death… And, strangely enough, the way in which sin kills people is quite similar to that of carbon monoxide. Isn’t this what we find in the first reading?
Notice how it all begins with a temptation. A temptation not with something bad, but with something apparently good. The woman saw that the tree was good to eat and pleasing to the eye… And not just good in itself. But better than the life that God had already provided for them. And then, once the woman and the man eat of the forbidden fruit. Once they decide to cling to something other than what has already been provided for them. They are poisoned. Outwardly, of course, it may seem as though they are still alive. But, in reality, their disobedience, their sin, suffocates them spiritually. Not unlike how carbon monoxide suffocates us. By clinging to them, and preventing them from enjoying the breath of life that God has already breathed into them. The same breath by which they become living beings.
Temptation, poisoning and death. This is how sin kills us spiritually. Stubbornly clinging to us. Preventing us from enjoying the true life that is God’s precious gift. Thankfully, for those of us who suffer in this way, there is a way out. An antidote. As you may know, the treatment for carbon monoxide poisoning is actually pure oxygen. Which purifies the blood of the poisonous carbon monoxide. Allowing the haemoglobin to recover its ability to carry life giving oxygen to the whole body. In other words, the body is given a new breath of life. Treatment, purification, and life. Three healing steps to reverse the effects of the poison.
But if pure oxygen is the treatment for carbon monoxide, then what is the antidote for sin? We find the answer to this question in the second reading. What reverses the effects of sin is the divine grace, coming through the one man, Jesus Christ. The grace that has come to us as an abundant free gift. And the gospel shows us what it looks like when this divine grace is at work. Specifically, in the example given by Jesus’ own response to temptation.
Notice again how all the temptations he experiences are temptations to apparently good things. He is hungry and needs to eat. Why not turn stones into bread to feed himself? He has come into the world to gather disciples. What could be more effective than a spectacular miracle involving being rescued by angels after plunging from a height? And why not worship the devil, if this can win him all the kingdoms of the world? Isn’t this also what he has come into the world to do? To build a kingdom?
Yet, in every case, Jesus sees through the devil's deception. He refuses to choose to produce something for himself. Contenting himself instead to receive what he needs from his heavenly Father. Insisting on clinging to the breath of life that is the Spirit living and moving in him. The same Spirit that has led him into the wilderness to be tempted. Giving him power to fulfil his mission even in the face of strong opposition. As a result, the devil is defeated, and angels appear and look after him.
In Jesus’ obedience in the face of temptation, we find an awe-inspiring demonstration of the power of the Breath of the Spirit. The Breath of Life. And the good news for us all is that Jesus has already breathed this same Spirit into the world. Especially when he gave his life for us on the Cross. When, after crying out with a loud voice, he breathed his last (Mt 27:50).
All of which might give us a better understanding of what we are doing in this holy season of Lent. Through our lenten discipline of prayer, and fasting, and almsgiving, we are not so much trying to produce something for ourselves. We are not trying to make ourselves holier. Or more pious. Or more spiritually impressive. What we are doing is making time and space for us to inhale more deeply the Breath of Christ. The Breath of the Spirit. The Breath of Life. The same Breath that is for us effective treatment against the poison of sin. Purification from all that clings to us and prevents us from experiencing the love, and joy and peace of God. The fullness of life that is God’s free gift to us and to our world.
My dear sisters and brothers, as we begin this holy season of Lent, how does the Lord wish to save us from carbon monoxide poisoning today?