Christ Tempted by the Devil, by John Ritto Penniman, 1818

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

(from “Do not go gentle into that good night, by ” Dylan Thomas)

 

The opening lines of Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night” are the voice of a young man urging his father to fight back against imminent death, to “rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Most of us, I think, when we reach our later years have the wisdom to understand the situation a little better; my own octogenarian father remarked recently, in reference to this poem, “but I don’t want to rage against the dying of the light.”  But again, the narrative voice is that of someone much younger (Thomas himself was in his thirties when he composed it).

Dylan Thomas

     All the same, there’s something universally human about the refusal to “go gentle into that good night.” We want to be masters of our world, and we want to leave a lasting legacy behind us when we do go.  We want, as the Roman poet Horace put it, to erect “a monument more lasting than bronze.”

     It’s a forlorn hope.  As Thomas’ poem points out, all of us, the “wise,” the “good,” even “wild men,” learn at the end that our “frail deeds might have danced in the green bay” . . . but fell short of our hopes.  As Ecclesiastes says, all is vanity.

     The Good News, as Christians know, is that while our ambitions for ourselves might be vanity, our lives and even our failures in this world are not in vain. That is, if we turn our lives over to God, and join our failures to the suffering of Jesus Christ.

     That’s the message of the First Sunday of Lent.  Our Gospel reading today, for instance, is Satan’s temptation of Jesus in the desert (Luke 4:1-13). The Devil offers Jesus the same temptations of mastery that attract all of us: feeding our appetitites without restriction (“command this stone to become bread”), exercising power without limit (“I shall give to you all this power and glory”), and, in short, doing whatever we want without suffering consequences:

 

“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,
and:
            With their hands they will support you,
            lest you dash your foot against a stone.

     Jesus, however, has “taken the form of a slave” (Philippians 2:7), and accepts human limitations. He refuses all the allurements of Satan.

     The example Jesus gives us, of rejecting the mirage of mastery in the here and now, and instead relying on God his Father, sets the agenda for the Season of Lent.  The austerities of Lent are intended to teach us that we don’t need the things we think we need: none of those things can save us.  That applies even to our religion, if we behave as if religion is there to put God to work for us, rather than to lead us to God.  Notice in the quote above how the Evil One cites Holy Scripture, Psalm 91 (which is also our responsory psalm today), in his effort to separate Jesus from His Father.

     Jesus, of course, knows that the images of Angels guarding us aren’t a promise that God will protect us from the natural consequences of our actions in this world.  And haven’t we all seen, over and over again, that bad things happen to even the best people?  The best person of all, in fact, Jesus Christ, although sinless, was sentenced to an excruciating death on The Cross.  We see the fulfillment of Psalm 91 in The Resurrection, God’s promise that for he “who [says] to the LORD, ‘My refuge and fortress, my God in whom I trust’”  God says “I will be with him in distress; I will deliver him and glorify him.”

     The message that we need to detach ourselves from reliance on the world in order to put ourselves under God’s protection is a major theme in the other readings as well.  In the Old Testament reading we find Moses reminding the Hebrews how, when they were bound in hopeless slavery to Pharaoh, God “brought us out of Egypt with his strong hand and outstretched arm.” (Deuteronomy 26:8).  St. Paul, in the second reading, tells the Romans that

 

if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord
and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead,
you will be saved. (Romans 10:9)

Detail from the Ghent Altarpiece, by Jan van Eyck, c. 1430

 

St. Paul tells us we need to turn to The Lord with everything we have, inside and out. It’s no good just to say the words, nor is it sufficient to have good intentions without putting them into practice.  Both body and soul need to be working together.

     In a similar way, the sacrifices of Lent are intended to strengthen the movement of our hearts away from the world, and toward Jesus Christ. Those who confess that Jesus is Lord, and believe in their heart that God raised him from the dead, do not, and cannot, “rage against the dying of the light.”  The light of this world is only a passing reflection of the true light of Heaven, where there is

no need of sun or moon to shine upon it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb.  By its light shall the nations walk; and the kings of the earth shall bring their glory into it,  and its gates shall never be shut by day–and there shall be no night there;  they shall bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. (Revelation 21: 23-26)

     That’s what God promises to us, on the far side of the temptations of the Devil and forty days in the desert. We can’t do it alone, but if we “Call on the name of the Lord” Jesus is there with us.

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