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If you can resist anything but temptation, this is for you….

January 17, 2013

Today is the Feast of Saint Antony (17th January), the patron saint of those who are tempted.

It’s not a sin to be tempted – acting on a temptation is what leads to sin. Sometimes it’s difficult to resist temptation. If that’s the case for you, there two things I would say: 1. Welcome to the human race; 2. You have a friend in Saint Antony!

Saint Antony was Egyptian, born in about 251AD. Both his parents died when he was only 18. After his parents died, he shared his inheritance with his sister, and then gave away all he had to the poor. By the age of 20 he had decided to become a hermit, and went out into the wilderness to begin a life of penitence, living in absolute poverty, praying, meditating, and supporting himself by manual work. Disciples gathered round him, attracted by his wisdom, moderation, and holiness, and this was the origin of the first monasteries. Saint Antony built monasteries in Egypt and became an Abbott. He  was 105 years old when he died in 356AD.

The Reading from the Letter to the Hebrews today is Hebrews 3: 7-14.

Do you know why the psalm during the mass is called the ‘Responsorial Psalm’? It is NOT because there is a response after each verse that we all say as a response to the reader. No, the reason it’s called a ‘responsorial psalm’ is because it is ‘a response to the first reading’ – a way of reinforcing the message. I’ve found that if I’m preparing for the mass and the first reading is a bit difficult to understand, reading through the responsorial psalm helps – because it contains the underlying message of the first reading but using different words.

The Letter to the Hebrews was written as encouragement for Christians whose faith was beginning to wobble, people who were beginning to lose confidence, to lose their new faith in Jesus Christ. Today’s reading reminds the early Christians that abandoning faith in God has happened before in Jewish history, when Moses led the people from captivity in Egypt towards the Promised Land.

Almost immediately after escaping to freedom from Pharaoh, voices were raised among the people, frightened that they were doing the wrong thing, and were wanting to return to slavery in Egypt. Do you see the parallel with the early Church? Some of the early Christians were beginning to say that life had been easier when they were not Christians but simple, ordinary Jews – indeed, they might have had to follow a lot of very heavy rules that made their lives difficult, but at least they didn’t live in the so-called freedom of Christianity that meant they got abuse from their neighbours and ran the risk of being arrested.

Yet the reading from the Letter to the Hebrews reminds them of the consequences of succumbing to the temptation, the nostalgia of wanting to revert back to the past, as their forefathers who were escaping from Egypt wanted to do: God told Moses that as a result of their lack of faith, none of that generation would reach the Promised Land. It would be the next generation, after 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, led by a new leader (Joshua), who would eventually cross the River Jordan to the Promised Land.

Again, there’s a parallel for Christians in this image of the Promised Land. For  Christians the Promised Land is in heaven, and we arrive there by following, not Moses, but Jesus – following Him on our life journey; and the Christian entrance into that promised land of heaven also comes after we have passed through the waters, not of the Red Sea or the River Jordan, but through the waters of baptism.

And is seems from the Letter to the Hebrews that some of those early Christians were also a bit worried that they hadn’t been on the journey towards heaven from the first days of the Church in Jerusalem 35 years earlier – they feared they were just ‘Johnny come lately’ Christians, not the real thing, and so they had missed their chance. They were ready to abandon their faith, to give up and go back to their old life.

Incidentally, there’s a link here with today’s saint, Saint Antony. I told you earlier how he had given up everything he had to become a monk in the wilderness. Yet that young man was plagued by temptations to re-join the secular world and give up his religious vocation. He resisted those temptations. And it is because he was sorely tempted to abandon his religious life, that Saint Antony is the patron saint of those who are tempted.

The answer to the fears and temptations of the early Christians to abandon their new-found faith was answered in the Letter to the Hebrews by quoting directly from Psalm 94.

[For those of us who follow the Prayer of the Church Psalm 94 is very familiar, because it is one of the psalms that is recited at the beginning of the first prayers every day. The ‘Prayer of the Church’, sometimes called ‘The Office’, is a means of praying the psalms on a four week cycle. Through regularly praying the psalms in this way, we, like the earliest Christians, continue an ancient Jewish tradition; and it also had an additional benefit: when persecution takes place and Christians find themselves in prison, even facing martyrdom, they are able to continue praying with the rest of the Church around the world because they are familiar with the psalms and know the words.

When Saint Antony established the first monasteries in Egypt, the monks would pray the Prayer of the Church together. And the way in which they did it is the same way that we continue to say the prayers to this day. In fact, tomorrow evening, as on every Friday evening, at 6.45pm, we have Evening Prayer in this church, and we continue the tradition of saying the verses, alternating from one side of the church to the other, just as monks have always done and continue to do in their monasteries.]

Let’s briefly look at Psalm 94. It acknowledges that we are made by God, therefore, it says, we should worship God; and it describes us as a flock of sheep who should trust in God to feed by God. This is a reference to the people wandering through the desert. They were all complaining that they were starving and it would be better to suffer well-fed slavery back in Egypt rather than being free but starving in the wilderness. The point was they hadn’t asked God for what they wanted – they hadn’t asked for “their daily bread”. As soon as they did, God provided manna from heaven, and quails, birds, to eat. God’s providence. They had forgotten to pray because their faith was weak.

Then they all moved on in their journey through the wilderness. And then they did it again! – this time complaining to Moses that they were thirsty. They’d already forgotten to pray to God for what they needed. In fact they were beginning to ask, “Is the Lord with us, or not?” This happened at places in the desert that became known as Massah and Meribah. And Massah means ‘to test’ or ‘to tempt’, whilst Meribah means “arguing, quarreling”. Massah and Meribah were the places in the desert where the people’s faith in God had faltered and they had disputes with Moses. If it had happened in this country, it would have meant we’d have two towns, one called Test and the other called Bickering.

So today’s responsorial psalm was used as a reminder to those Christians who were beginning to lose faith in God:

“O that today you would listen to his voice! ‘Harden not your hearts as at Meribah, as on that day at Massah in the desert when your fathers put me to the test;”

“Harden not your hearts” against God.

In our modern world, we tend to associate our hearts with our emotions – we imagine our hearts to be the centre of our feelings, where we ‘feel’ love. But in ancient times people had a very different model of where our thought processes happened. We know that intellect, our ability to use our imagination and to reason intelligently, and the control centre of our bodies is in our brains; But ancient people thought the grey matter in our head was just filling an empty space; they believed that thinking took place in the heart – they saw the heart as the very centre of a person’s being, the place where they focus thoughts and ideas, the place where their very soul resided.

So when the psalmist says “harden not your hearts” against God, it means ‘don’t close your mind to God’. Use your brain to keep in touch with God. It is telling them to humbly pray to God as his creatures, not to turn from God and mistakenly think they are always in charge.

Precisely what we should do in times of trouble, when we feel embattled, down, defeated. The answer is there in front of us:

Trust in God – He will provide.

Pray to God – He will answer

That’s the message of today’s psalm. Everything will be all right. Have faith. Stick with it. God will provide and look after us.

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