Sunday 17 February 2013

ALL THIS POWER - Refusing The Temptation

‘I will give you all this power and the glory of these kingdoms'
(Luke 4:1-13)

It was the Holy Spirit who led Jesus went into the wilderness; He was filled with the Spirit throughout the ordeal of fasting and battle. After forty days and nights He was weak with hunger and it is when we are most fragile that the devil makes his strongest attack against our vulnerability. 

There is the temptation to power; to be strong instead of weak; to be in control. Satan says to Jesus ‘I will give you all this power and the glory of these kingdoms, for it has been committed to me and I give it to anyone I choose. Worship me, then, and it shall all be yours.’ This is very attractive, seductive.

Up until the time of Paul VI the popes wore a triple tiara and were carried shoulder high on a throne. But I heard somewhere that a man would walk beside the pope saying something like the Ash Wednesday refrain 'remember that you are dust and unto dust you shall return' - reminding him that, amid all the pomp, glory and power, he was a mortal human being like the rest of us.

Pope Benedict XVI was presented with a triple tiara in 2011, though I don't know if he wore it, but he did not need anyone to remind him of his humanity, his frailty. He was tuned into it himself; perhaps he had often confronted his own vulnerability and was neither surprised by it nor afraid of it when it announced its presence in his old age. 

It is hard for a man (more so than a woman) to acknowledge his vulnerability to himself but to announce it to the whole world, as Benedict did, takes a lot of courage and humility.

Neither was the pope clinging to the "power" of his office but like Christ he has found the freedom to empty himself of his position and all that goes with it.

Whatever else Pope Benedict XVI has done, whatever criticisms of him people have, whatever failures - what he has done this week cannot be denied. And in making his decision he has given us all permission to face up to and acknowledge our vulnerability and to let go of the "powers" we might cling to.

Most of us are not in positions that give us any kind of power as it is understood but within all of us there is a desire for power, a drive to have power over someone or something. This is a reality present in every man, woman and child, though not everyone exercises it.

However, many people do exercise power negatively in their relationships, seeking to control the life of another, actually controlling the other by psychological or emotional fear, by violence, by silence and many other ways. We live in a time when it has become acceptable to be aggressive in the way we treat others, believing we have the right to treat another in any way that we choose, without taking responsibility for our words and actions. Bullying at all levels and ages of life is present everywhere.

Our aggression often masks our vulnerability - we lash out because we are hurting. We become the wounded who wound others when we might become the wounded healer. 

Our journey into the desert of Lent brings us face to face with our demons and our brokenness, our hunger for power and control. The temptations present in these realities can be fed by giving into them or they can exhaust themselves by our refusal to be seduced by them.

In sickness and age we find ourselves losing all sorts of ordinary "powers" that we need for living - sight, hearing, limbs, health, minds - and it is my prayer that Pope Benedict can inspire us to find hope in Christ the Powerless One in whom all our losses and sufferings are lifted up.

Saturday 2 February 2013


It's part of my responsibility to meet with the seminarians one-to-one and together as a community - a formal "business" meeting and an evening of recreation. We're in Nairobi at the formal gathering. I have given a positive, encouraging talk and feel quite satisfied with myself until, one by one, without exception the students begin a tirade of complaint and criticism - not against me directly but against our way of life.

By the time they finish I'm feeling fairly depressed and in my desperation I ask, "if it's that bad, then why are you still here; what's keeping you here?"

They ponder in silence for a while and then, one by one without exception they tell me why. The response that has stayed with me is that of Jackson from Rwanda.

Jackson was at school when a Pallottine came to talk about vocations, looking for new recruits. He read the call of Jeremiah - "before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you came to birth I consecrated you" (Jeremiah 1) - and it made a deep impression on the young man. It stirred his soul, drew him to its reality and when the priest asked who was interested in becoming a Pallottine, Jackson said yes because he wanted what he had just heard.

Amazingly, he was some time in the junior seminary when they noticed that he wasn't receiving Holy Communion and, when asked why, he announced that he was not a Christian. Nobody had thought to ask this before he joined; he never thought to tell.

So he had to leave in order prepare for Baptism before he can come back into the seminary. He's now an ordained priest.

It tells us of the positive power of the Word of God to reach into the heart of one who does  not formally belong to the People of God. It tells how openess to the Word is to be found in one who has not yet come to the faith.

This is what Jesus is suggesting in Luke 4 when he tells his listeners how God in the past reached out to those who were not of the Jewish faith, that those on the "outside" are often better able to accept and receive what God is offering. so, those who, a while earlier, were full of admiration for Jesus, suddenly turned against him to the point that they wanted to kill him. The ficklenss of  the human person! The disgruntled who complain when things do not go their way, when Jesus doesn't give them what they want, when he challenges them.

The students in Nairobi were disgruntled and they had allowed themselves to sink down into a life-draining dissatisfaction, a distructive complaining. Fortunately, the question I asked them prompted them to look again at their life and to recognise that all was not as bad as they realized. In looking again they discovered the positive word that lifted them up and in sharing it they touched each other's lives in a very positive way. Jackson had us rolling round the place laughing.

Complaining can become a habit, a soul destroying habit.

It is vital to remain connected to who we are in God, drawing life from the mystery - "before I formed you in the womb I knew you"  - that our life  goes much further back than our conception and it's interesting that when we are discussing when human life begins we seem to forget this essential aspect of our existence. Somehow, we exist for God & in God before ever we are conceived.

I've just turned 58 and I love my age. But I love more the idea that I go back much further than 58 or even 59 years. It's taught by one of the Fathers of the Church that long before the world was ever made God was alreday loving me, loving each one of us. And if the world came into existence in some fashion 14.5 billion years ago, then I go back even further than that, back into the eternity of God.

What's more is that the eternity in which I have always lived, from which I have come into this world - that eternity is an experience of the infinite, incomprehensible Love Who Is God; that Love which is always patient and kind, always ready to excuse and to trust, that Love that is the highest of all aspirations. Love that I know imperfectly now but which I will know as perfectly as I am known by God. It's God's infinite desire that we abide in Love, draw life from Love.

The consequence and the challenge of this eternal experience is that we allow this Love to overflow through and out of us into every place, into every person that we encounter. We have in us the capacity for infinite loving and we will not rest until loving is perfected in us.

This is the positive Word, the Good News in which our lives find fulfillment and meaning.