The Gospel for the First Sunday of Lent is the story of Jesus, revealed to be Son of God, led into the desert to be tempted by the devil who does not give up easily.
In my estimation, one of the best movies about Catholic life in America taking a wrong turn has been deemed by some to be a bit rough around the edges. The 1981 film is “True Confessions,” from a novel of the same name by John Gregory Dunne loosely based on the famous Los Angeles “Black Dahlia” case of 1947.
In the film, Robert DeNiro plays Monsignor Desmond Spellacy, a priest of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles in the late 1940s at the epicenter of the power politics of a church beginning to succumb to the world in which it thrives. Amid corruption while being groomed to become the next Archbishop, the Monsignor nonetheless clings to an honest spiritual life just starting its inevitable fraying at the edges as he is dragged ever deeper into a tangled web of deceit.
Robert Duvall portrays his older brother, Tom Spellacy, an honest and dedicated – if somewhat cynical – L.A. homicide detective whose investigation of the murder of a Catholic prostitute brings him ever closer to the perimeter of an archdiocese circling the wagons. Charles Durning portrays the thoroughly corrupt owner of a large construction firm bidding for church building projects. Having just been awarded Catholic Layman of the Year by Monsignor Spellacy, he is also a suspect in the murder investigation that a lot of people want quietly swept under a rug.
Those wanting to influence and sideline Tom’s investigation come up with evidence – a photograph – that his Monsignor-brother also knew the murdered girl, but the photograph is entirely benign. Still, it’s enough to make a lurid case for guilt by association leaving Tom in a quandary about pursuing an investigation that will destroy his innocent brother’s career. The film ends with the case solved, but Monsignor Spellacy banished to a small parish in the California desert.
That the film – and the priesthood of Monsignor Spellacy – ends in the desert is highly symbolic. The image has ancient roots into our Sacred Scriptures, and especially into the Book of Leviticus. This book is comprised of liturgical laws for the Levitical priesthood reaching back to 1300 BC as Moses led his people through a forty-year period of exile in the Sinai desert. Some of the ritual accounts it contains are far more ancient.
In a 2018 Christmas post, “Silent Night and the Shepherds Who Quake at the Sight</a>,” I wrote that the troubles of our time are the manifestation of spiritual warfare that has been waged in the world since God’s first bond of covenant with us. Before that bond, we were doomed. Since that bond, reestablished by God again and again, there is hope for us. We remain oblivious to spiritual warfare to our own spiritual peril. We live in a very important time in God’s covenant relationship with us. The Birth of the Messiah and His walking among us are equidistant in time between our existence now in the 21st Century A.D. and Abraham’s first encounter with God in the 21st Century B.C.
OUR DAY OF ATONEMENT BEGINS
The Gospel according to Saint Luke for the First Sunday of Lent (4:1-13) is also set in the desert as the Day of Atonement begins for all humankind. Revealed in Baptism as the Son of God…
“Filled with the Holy Spirit, Jesus returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the desert for forty days to be tempted by the devil.” (Luke 4:1)
The scene has roots in an ancient ritual for the Day of Atonement described in Leviticus 16:5-10. Aaron, the high priest…
“Shall take from the congregation of the people of Israel two male goats for a sin offering…. Then he shall take the two goats and set them before the Lord at the tent of meeting; and Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats, one for the Lord and the other lot for Azazel. And Aaron shall present the goat upon which the lot fell for the Lord, and offer it as a sin offering, but the goat upon which the lot fell for Azazel shall be presented alive before the Lord to make atonement over it, that it may be sent away into the desert wilderness to Azazel…” (Leviticus 16:5,7-10).
This describes the ritual for purification known in Hebrew as Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement from Leviticus Chapter 16. The ritual reaches far beyond Moses into the time of God’s first covenant with Abraham some 2000 years before the Birth of the Messiah.
There are two goats mentioned in the ritual: One for sacrifice, to Yahweh, and the other – the one bearing the sins of Israel – is “for Azazel.” This name appears only in Leviticus 16 and nowhere else in Scripture. The name is believed to be that of a fallen angel and follower of Satan who haunts the desert wilderness. Some scholars believe Azazel to be the being referred to as “the night hag” haunting the desolate wilderness, in Isaiah 34:14.
The Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible called the second goat “caper emissarius,” (“the goat sent out”). An English translation rendered it “escape goat” from which the term “scapegoat” has been derived. A scapegoat is one who is held to bear the wrongs of others, or of all. The symbolism in the Gospel of Jesus being led by the Spirit into the desert to face the devil is striking because he is to become, by God’s own design, the scapegoat for the sins of all humanity.
In the Gospel for the First Sunday of Lent, Jesus is described as “filled with the Holy Spirit.” This term appears in only three other places in Scripture, all three also written by Saint Luke. In the Book of Acts of the Apostles (6:5) Stephen, “filled with the Holy Spirit”’ was the first to be chosen to care for widows and orphans in the daily distribution of food. Later in Acts (7:55) Stephen, “filled with the Holy Spirit gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God” as he became the first Martyr of the Church.
The witnesses who approved of the stoning of Stephen “laid their cloaks at the feet of a young man named Saul” (Acts 7:58) whose radical conversion to become Paul would build the global Church.
Also in Acts (11:24) Barnabus is filled with the Holy Spirit as he founded the first Church beyond Jerusalem for the Gentiles of Antioch. The sense of the term “filled with the Holy Spirit” in Saint Luke’s passages alludes to the hand of God in our living history.
In our first Sunday Gospel for Lent, Jesus, filled with the Holy Spirit, “having returned from the Jordan,” is led by the Spirit for forty days in the desert wilderness. The Gospel links this account to His Baptism at the Jordan at which He is revealed as “Son of God.” This revelation becomes a diabolical taunt, and knowing that Jesus has fasted becomes the devil’s first temptation: “If you are the Son of God, turn this stone into bread.” Jesus thwarts the temptation, and the taunt with a quote from the Hebrew Scriptures (Deuteronomy 8:3), “Man does not live by bread alone (but by everything that proceeds from the mouth of God.”)
The symbolism is wonderful here. Like the Father in the Parable of the Prodigal Son – also from Luke (15:11-32) – God had two sons. In the Book of Exodus (4:21-22) Israel is called God’s “first-born son”:
“The Lord said to Moses, ‘When you go back to Egypt, see that you do before Pharaoh all the miracles which I have put in your power, but I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go. And you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the Lord, Israel is my first-born son, and I say to you, let my son go that he may serve me. If you refuse to let my son go, I will slay your first-born son’.”
It was the fulfillment of this command of God that finally broke the yoke of slavery and caused Pharaoh to release Israel from bondage. But, as in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, Israel was not faithful and spent forty years wandering in the desert as a result of this son’s infidelity. In the Gospel of Luke, the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity assumed the humanity of the first son, and was led by the Spirit into the desert to save him in the Second Exodus, our release from the bondage of sin and death.
LEAD US NOT INTO TEMPTATION
The second temptation is the lure of political power. In a single instant, the devil showed Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and said, “I shall give you all this power and glory for it has been handed over to me… all this will be yours if you worship me.” This has been the downfall of many, including many in our Church. Jesus again quotes from Scripture, “It is written, you shall worship the Lord your God and serve him alone” (Deuteronomy 6:13). This Gospel revisits the lure of political power immediately after the Institution of the Eucharist:
“A dispute arose among them, which of them was to be regarded as the greatest. And he said to them, ‘The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves… I am among you as one who serves.” (Luke 22:24-26)
The Greek in which this Gospel was written used for the word “leader” the term “hēgoumenos.” Its implication refers especially to a religious leader. The Letter to the Hebrews (13:7) uses the same Greek term for “leaders,” and it is not their power which is to be emulated, but their faith to the extent to which they reflect Christ:
“Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God, consider the outcome of their life, and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” (Hebrews 13:7-8)
Though it doesn’t generate the media’s obsession with sexual scandals, hubris and self-centeredness have been a far greater problem in our Church, and are the underlying catalyst for almost all other scandals, sexual, financial, and reputational. This culture has led Church leaders into the temptation of Earthly Powers, and too many have been eager participants. Some refer to this as “clericalism,” and in my opinion the best commentary on it was a brief article by the late Father Richard John Neuhaus in First Things entitled, “Clerical Scandal and the Scandal of Clericalism.”
BUT DELIVER US FROM EVIL
Catholicism in America thrived when it had to earn its dignity. Once it became politically accepted, it went on in this culture to become comfortable, and its leaders (“hēgoumenos”) perhaps a bit too comfortable. Religious authority and the sheer masses of believers spelled political power. The pedestals upon which we stood grew in height with every clerical advance, and our bishops stood upon the highest pedestals of all with palatial trappings more akin to the courts of Herod and Caesar than the Cross of Christ the King, the same yesterday, today, and forever.
It is no mystery why, as the height of our pedestals grew, so did our scandals. This is perhaps why Jesus offered to us the way to pray “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” It is because He alone could be led by the Spirit into the desert of temptation and emerge without dragging along behind Him the evil He encountered there.
As the last temptation of Christ unfolded – the last for the moment anyway – it is now the devil, in a final effort, who dares to quote and distort the Word of God. He led Jesus to Jerusalem, and to the parapet, the highest point of the highest place, the Temple of Sacrifice. And now comes his final taunt:
“If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you in all your ways,’ and ‘with their hands they will support you lest you dash your foot against a stone’.” (Luke 3:9-11)
This devil of the desert takes up the argament of Jesus, the Word of God, quoting Psalm 91 (11-12). The taunt to test God and “go your own way” is far deeper than the mere words convey. In Jerusalem, the devil will take hold of Judas Iscariot (Luke 22:3) leading to the trial before Pilate and the Way of the Cross. In Jerusalem, the powers of darkness, first encountered here in the desert, are mightily at work: “This is your hour, and the power of darkness.” (Luke 22:53)
The Church in the Western world has entered a time of persecution but thus far the institutional response – having traded the Gospel for “zero tolerance” in a quest for scapegoats to cast out into the desert to Azazel – does not bode well for the faith of a Church built upon the blood of Her martyrs.
Perhaps, as the Spirit leads us into this desert, it is our vocation, and not that of our leaders, that is essential. Perhaps it is not clerical reform that is needed so much as a revolution – a revolution of fidelity that can only be lived and not just talked about. Those who abandon their faith in a time in the desert were leaving anyway, just waiting for the right excuse. To use the behavior of leaders to diminish and then abandon the Sacrament of Salvation is to cave to the true goal of Azazel. He could not lure Christ from us, but he can lure us from Christ and he is giving it a go.
This Lent in the desert is our time to confirm the conclusion of the Pope. No, not this one! The first one! “To Whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life!”
Note from Father Gordon MacRae: Please share this post to help place it before someone at a crossroads. And don’t stop here. Enter Lent with these other Lenten posts from These Stone Walls: