Sunday, 18 February 2018

‘I can resist everything
except temptation’

‘And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness’ (Mark 1: 12) (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 18 February 2018,

The First Sunday in Lent,

Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick

11.15 a.m., Choral Eucharist

Readings:
Genesis 9: 8-17; Psalm 25: 1-9; I Peter 3: 18-22; Mark 1: 9-15.

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Oscar Wilde once said, ‘I can resist everything except temptation.’

Or rather, he put these words in the mouth of Lord Darlington in Lady Windermere’s Fan (Act I, 1892). And, if you are familiar with the play, Lord Darlington then not only shows how not to resist temptation, but also leads the once-puritanical Lady Windermere into temptation too.

A well-known canon of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin – I better clarify quickly that this is not the present Dean of this Cathedral – a well-known canon of Saint Patrick’s was asked one year what he was giving up for Lent.

‘I am giving up the slice of lemon in my gin and tonic,’ he replied.

However, to dispel any misapprehensions, he added hastily: ‘But I shall remain bitter and twisted.’

Temptation is so difficult to resist.

How many of us started Lent with good intentions last Wednesday, on Ash Wednesday?

How many of us, by the weekend, have already found an excuse to allow that resolve to weaken, had that drink, stepped out for that smoke, had an extra chocolate or dipped into biscuits?

How many of us found a good excuse in not wanting to look too pious or sanctimonious this Lent, or in the words of Canon Bradley, to appear ‘bitter and twisted’?

I was hoping to get a little more daily exercise in Lent, to get out for a few extra kilometres each day, which is good for my body, but also good for my mind and my soul.

But I realise the temptation of the easy excuse, particularly with the persistent daily rain that I realise since I arrived here a year ago is part of the microclimate of West Limerick.

But I give in to myself too easily. It is not as though the rain is going to last for the 40 days and 40 nights of Lent, is it?

It’s not as if each day is going to bring the 40 days of flooding that Noah experienced (see Genesis 7: 17), or that the waters are going to remain on the footpaths and potholes for the 40 days that Noah waited before opening the windows of the ark (see Genesis 8: 6).

But the repetition of 40 days throughout the story of the Flood is significant. I can think too of the 40 years the freed slaves spent wandering in the wilderness, the 40 days of testing Moses endured when the covenant was renewed after the incident involving the golden calf (Exodus 34: 28), the 40 days Elijah spent on Mount Sinai (see I Kings 19: 8), and the 40 days Christ spent in the wilderness.

Each period of 40 days (or 40 years) is followed by new promise, now hope, new relationship, loving relationship, what we call covenantal relationship, with God.

‘Noah and the Dove’ by Simon Manby (2006) … a sculpture in the gardens of Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

After the 40 days of waiting for the floods to recede, Noah sees a rainbow in the sky, a sign of the covenant (Genesis 9: 9) God makes with Noah, his sons, and with ‘every living creature’ (verse 10). The agreement is between God and all humanity (verses 11, 15, 16), with all creatures and with ‘the earth’ (verse 13) itself, and it is an ‘everlasting covenant’ (verse 16).

After 40 days, the children in the wilderness enter a new covenant with God.

After 40 days in wilderness, where – unlike Lady Windermere’s suitor Lord Darlington – he resists temptation, Christ returns to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news’ (see Mark 1: 14-15).

That link between 40 days of waiting and preparing, hoping and anticipating, explains how the Early Church developed the season of Lent as the season of preparation for Baptism for new Christians.

In our Epistle reading, Saint Peter tells us Baptism puts us in a condition to be found worthy by God (see I Peter 3: 21).

Lent is not so much a time of fretting about temptation or dispelling any misapprehensions about looking too pious or sanctimonious, as a time of preparing to renew our Baptismal covenant, to renew our love affair with God.

Is your Lent going to be an opportunity to be part of the new creation in Christ?

Is your Lent going to be a time to take account of your own hidden temptations?

Is your Lent going to be a time to explore your own wilderness places and to be aware of them?

Is your Lent going to be a time of preparation for the acceptance of the Kingdom of God?

Perhaps the best-known line in Lady Windermere’s Fan is words spoken by Lord Darlington that sum up the central theme of the play: ‘We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.’

They are words by Oscar Wilde that describe how Victorians saw an unbridgeable chasm between good and bad, between love and hopelessness, between real love and base desire, between the eternal and the frailty of real life.

But these are false contrasts. Instead I prefer how Martin Luther King once said: ‘Only in the darkness can you see the stars.’

Spiritually, we are not in the gutter looking up at the stars. Our Baptism means we do not remain in the wilderness or in the darkness. Lent, as it returns year by year, offers us a perennial opportunity to renew our covenantal relationship with God, the promises of our Baptism, to accept the love of God that Christ offers us.

How?

There is a posting that is popular in social media for the past week that asks: ‘Do You Want to Fast This Lent?’

And it then offers these bite-size Lenten resolutions, said to be ‘in the words of Pope Francis’:

Fast from hurting words ... and say kind words.

Fast from sadness ... and be filled with gratitude.

Fast from anger ... and be filled with patience.

Fast from pessimism ... and be filled with hope.

Fast from worries ... and have trust in God.

Fast from complaints ... and contemplate simplicity.

Fast from pressures ... and be prayerful.

Fast from bitterness ... and fill your hearts with joy.

Fast from selfishness ... and be compassionate to others.

Fast from grudges ...and be reconciled.

Fast from words ... and be silent so you can listen.

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Precentor of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, and Priest-in-Charge of the Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin Group of Parishes. This sermon was prepared for the First Sunday in Lent, 18 February 2018.

He was in the wilderness for forty days (Mark 1: 13) (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Penitential Kyries:

In the wilderness we find your grace:
you love us with an everlasting love.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

There is none but you to uphold our cause;
our sin cries out and our guilt is great.
Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.

Heal us, O Lord, and we shall be healed;
Restore us and we shall know your joy.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Collect:

Almighty God,
whose Son Jesus Christ fasted forty days in the wilderness,
and was tempted as we are, yet without sin:
Give us grace to discipline ourselves
in obedience to your Spirit;
and, as you know our weakness,
so may we know your power to save;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Lenten Collect:

Almighty and everlasting God,
you hate nothing that you have made
and forgive the sins of all those who are penitent:
Create and make in us new and contrite hearts
that we, worthily lamenting our sins
and acknowledging our wretchedness,
may receive from you, the God of all mercy,
perfect remission and forgiveness;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Introduction to the Peace:

Being justified by faith,
we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. (Romans 5: 1, 2)

Preface:

Through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who was in every way tempted as we are yet did not sin;
by whose grace we are able to overcome all our temptations:

Post Communion Prayer:

Lord God,
you renew us with the living bread from heaven.
Nourish our faith,
increase our hope,
strengthen our love,
and enable us to live by every word
that proceeds from out of your mouth;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Blessing:

Christ give you grace to grow in holiness,
to deny yourselves,
and to take up your cross and follow him:

The fifth century mosaic of the Baptism of Christ in the Neonian Baptistry in Ravenna (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Hymns:

207, Forty days and forty nights
204, When Jesus came to Jordan
553, Jesu, lover of my soul
652, Lead us, heavenly Father, lead us

An icon of the Baptism of Christ, worked on a cut of olive wood by Eleftheria Syrianoglou, in an exhibition in the Fortezza in Rethymnon, Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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