A Dominican Homily for the First Sunday of Lent

February 23, 2013

The following homily was given by Fr. Romanus Cessario, O.P., at the Conventual Mass at the Dominican House of Studies on the First Sunday of Lent, February 17, 2013.  Fr. Cessario is professor of theology at St. John’s Seminary in Boston, MA.   Florence Fresco I express, first of all, my gratitude to Father Ken Letoile, the Prior, for the invitation to preside at the Community Mass. Preaching on the First Sunday of Lent holds a special place in a Dominican study house. The temptations that Christ met in the desert serve warning to human frailty. Whereas Christ, because of who he is, dismisses the devil’s enticements, the human race still succumbs to them. Sin requires absolution. Dominicans enjoy long-standing repute for helping people in the confessional. One only has to recall the celebrated fresco by Andrea di Bonaiuto found in the Spanish Chapel at Santa Maria Novella in Florence. At the center of the allegorical representation of the Church—the instrument of salvation—one sees, prominently positioned, a Dominican priest seated in a confessional. This fresco that dates from the mid-fourteenth century suffices to demonstrate that reconciliation has long ranked among the principal tools of our evangelical trade.[1] Dominicans know best how to help people deal with temptation. In our classes, we learn that since sin itself means defect, sin arises from a defective cause.[2] This invaluable lesson Aquinas teaches: “the cause of sin is an apparent good.”[3] Truth to tell, the temptations Christ faced masquerade as goods: bread, power, self-display. At the same time, capricious miracle working, worshiping the devil, and tempting God exemplify privative defects not perfective realities. Christ’s miracles are meant to prove to us, not to the devil, that Christ is God. Devil worship substitutes a creature, evilly disordered at that, for the Creator. Tempting God reverses the order of priorities that govern the created world. So also with the vicious actions that tempt ordinary folk. Though defective goods may entice, they still urge people to embrace defect, emptiness, and, in a sense, nothingness. Because of the privileged instruction we receive, it especially falls then to Dominicans to explain why sin does not make a person happy. Dominicans had not to wait for the teaching of Aquinas in order to discover that sin involves masquerade and defect. Saint Dominic himself liberated people from an “exasperated spiritualism,” that is, from psychological enslavement to an illusion.[4] Dualistic worldviews like that of the Cathars assign evil a per se cause. In other words, they make sin something complete and positive. When evil is alleged to compete with the good, people find themselves caught in between. To liberate from this distress, the Cathar Perfect Ones—the Perfecti—offered their false sacrament, the consolamentum.[5] The Church rejected the Albigenses not because of their zeal for reform, but because of their views, as Father Vicaire points out, on “the unicity of God, the role of Christ and his Cross in redemption, the nature of sin, of the soul, and of salvation.”[6] Dominicans draw upon a large spiritual legacy when it comes to giving people lessons on how to resist sin. Over the past fifty years or so, these are three that have caught my attention. First, Dominicans help people with their temptations to the extent that they preach the good God. The good God suffers no competition. He is the One God. Note that in the Gospel account of the temptations, one observes the spontaneity of Christ’s replies to the devil. We encounter no dramatic pause: Will he? Or, will he not? No back and forth. Instead, incarnate goodness shows himself steeled before thinly disguised defects. On this Sunday, many preachers will encourage their hearers to fight temptations against actions that contravene the divine will. Dominicans, on the other hand, should persuade their audiences to recognize the emptiness of sin. At the same time, Preachers of Truth will also urge people to trust the good God. Since this divine goodness abides without limit, God’s goodness remains the only reason for God doing anything. Seriously tempted people, especially those who experience over and again the same temptations, need to know that God loves them because he is good, not because they are. Why? The answer is simple. The devil uses sin and, even, temptations to sin to blackmail people. Second, Dominicans expose the devil’s blackmail. When people succumb to the devil’s blackmail, they invariably fall away from Christ and his cross. Why? The blackmail of the “ancient serpent” persuades people of their unworthiness to embrace Christ and his saving mysteries.[7] The devil wants us to think that a defect like sin places a real obstacle between the creature and God, that sin establishes a space from which God is excluded and in which man suffers isolation, that sin creates a no-man’s-land between the believer and God. Reactions to the blackmail, it is true, differ according to one’s spiritual state. Some spiritual people lament their situation. They abhor no-man’s-land. Less spiritual people ignore the isolation. They give themselves over to distractions. Sinners find themselves enjoying the vacancy of sin. They senselessly try to infinitize one or another creature. Each of course finds himself in a hell of fear or false loves. Preaching, whether in the pulpit or the confessional, rescues people from these errors about what sin, as it were, produces. Dominicans reach out to all. To the frightened, they offer assurance. To the lukewarm, they provide encouragement. To the obdurate, they extend mercy. All need to recognize that the salvation won by Christ brings the only ultimate human happiness that exists. In place of the defective vacancy of sin, Christ offers the highest realization of our human potential. We call this the beatific vision. Or, simply, heaven. Well did Andrea di Bonaiuto fix the gaze of those whom Saint Peter welcomes into heaven on the Exalted Christ. Thirdly, Dominicans instruct people how to live by faith. Saint Paul specifies that both the internal and external acts of faith characterize the justified man. “For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved” (Rom 10:10). It is not sufficient to expose the illusion of sin. It is not sufficient to unmask the devil’s strategies for enticing people to sin. If this were all that was required, then evangelists, preachers of truth, would only need to persuade people to read C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters.[8] As the Year of Faith reminds us, sanctification begins with what we know about the Truth. Christian life begins with an embrace of Truth, not through a dialectical engagement with it. Dominicans bear the heavy responsibility of instructing people that what they believe enlivens them. For as Aquinas makes plain, faith terminates not in a proposition but in the res, the reality, First Truth in Being. Dominicans teach people to combat temptations not with high-minded moralism but with a faith-filled embrace of God. The isolation of sin frustrates the human potency for true happiness. Faith, on the other hand, unites us with the highest actuality. On this Sunday, many preachers will exhort their hearers to imitate the good example that Christ sets in the Gospel. Honest men and women may discover in the invitation a source of discouragement. When the preacher, even without realizing it, reduces Christ to an extrinsic example of right conduct, discouragement can give way to despair. Dominicans present Christ first of all as a Friend. “Christus est maxime sapiens et amicus,” says Aquinas.[9] Christ above all others is wise and a friend. Saint Thomas offers this consoling reminder—a real consolamentum—within the context of explaining why a man would choose to consecrate himself to God following the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience. What purpose does the observance of these counsels serve? In a word, religious life removes us from temptation. The very kinds of temptations that Christ overcomes powerfully in the Gospel assigned invariably to the First Sunday of Lent: Riches, sensual pleasure, and the pride of life. No wonder that preaching on this gospel in a Dominican studium carries special significance. For in this holy place, young preachers become pregnant with God’s Word—as the image of Our Lady has reminded members of the Province for more than a century—and prepare themselves to do battle with mankind’s ancient enemy, the serpent, who still prowls around the world seeking the ruin and destruction of souls. These privileged young men, having learned how to unmask the devil’s blackmail, perfect their spiritual training by developing an affective union with Jesus Christ. They embrace the First and Best Friend. When in God’s loving providence this growth occurs and is sustained, Dominicans all, whether young or old, find themselves in continuity with those fourteenth-century Florentine Dominicans who undoubtedly modeled for Andrea di Bonaiuto. If you find the time, look at how the painter depicts these Dominican priests going about their saving, evangelical work. Each exudes unswerving confidence. The more one ponders the image, the more it becomes apparent that these Dominicans in Bonaiuto’s fresco appear as must have Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ when he vanquished the devil. [1] “Allegory of the Militant and Triumphant Church and of the Dominican Order” (c. 1365-68), also known as the “Way of Salvation.” [2] See Summa theologiae Ia-IIae q. 75, art. 1: “evil, which consists in the absence of something, has a deficient cause or results indirectly.” [3] ST Ia-IIae q. 75, art 2. [4] M.-H. Vicaire, Histoire de saint Dominique, 1. Un homme évangelique (Paris, Cerf, 1982), p. 166. [5] Vicaire, Histoire, p. 248. [6] Vicaire, Histoire, p. 223. [7] Roman Missal, First Sunday of Lent, Preface: “by overturning all the snares of the ancient serpent.” [8] C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (New York: Macmillan, 1943). [9] ST Ia-IIae q. 108, art. 4, sc.

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