“‘Divide and Conquer’ or ‘Unite and Prevail’? Learning the Lessons of Lent”
Homily the Rite of Election
February 26, 2023; St. Mary’s Cathedral
The ancient Romans had a strategy for victory in war that worked very effectively for them, which explains why they had such a vast and dominating empire for many centuries in the ancient world. The strategy and its slogan are well known to us: divide et impera – “divide and conquer.” It’s a universal principle; indeed, it is one that goes beyond the temporal order. It applies as well in the spiritual realm, which is why the devil is always seeking to divide. Yes, he is the great divider, as the origin of the word indicates: dia-bali – “to throw apart.”
Our Lord in the Desert
That is what he sought to do to our Lord during our Lord’s forty days of fasting in the desert at the start of his public ministry: he seeks to divide the Son of God from his Father. Notice how he uses this title in addressing our Lord: “if you are the Son of God.” Here his envy is on display in all its wickedness. As the gospel says, Jesus was led into the desert “at that time.”
“That time” is the time immediately after his Baptism, when, emerging from the water, the voice of the Father was heard from heaven proclaiming, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” This is who the devil wants to be, he wants to take Jesus’ place as the Son of God, and so he seeks to divide him from his Father, as he divided Adam from God, who made him.
We heard about this in our first reading, when the devil took advantage of the moment when Eve was separated from Adam, and succeeded in tricking them into eating the forbidden fruit and so separating them from God. Thus began God’s plan of salvation to unite us back to Himself, beginning with choosing a people, the people of Israel, from whom He would send His Son to repair the breach caused by our first parents.
Israel in the Desert
Our Lord withdrew to the desert to be tested. The desert is a place of testing: all comforts are taken away, food and water are scarce, one is at the mercy of the elements and must trust in God for salvation. So it was also for the people God chose to begin His plan of salvation for the world, the ancient people of Israel: for forty years they wandered in the Sinai desert searching for the Promised Land after being released from slavery in Egypt. God put them to the test, and so often they failed: they did not believe He would take care of them, that He would provide food, that He would provide water, that He would protect them from their enemies and from the elements, that He would guide them in the right way, and they even went so far as to worship a false god.
The responses Jesus gives to the devil during his time of testing in the desert are quotes from the book of Deuteronomy, which recounts for us Moses’ final discourse to the chosen people before they crossed the Jordan River to enter into the Promised Land. Here they are at the end of their forty-year sojourn in the Sinai, about to receive the inheritance their God had prepared for them, and Moses gives them a discourse to prepare them for this historic moment.
The basic commandment? To remember, remember all that the Lord had done for them and remember His fidelity to them. And so that they might remember, he commands them: “One does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes forth from the mouth of God”; “You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test”; “The Lord, your God, shall you worship and him alone shall you serve.”
The devil is real, and he tempts each one of us, seeking to separate us from God by separating us from each other. In our contemporary society, all of us suffer this division in some way or another: the breakup of families; contentions stemming from people of different ethnicities or languages or countries of origin; even divisions within our Church. One of the great blessings of this Rite of Election every year is that, with representation from parishes all throughout the three counties of our Archdiocese, we see the wonderful diversity of our Church, united in one Profession of Faith.
We must, then, renounce rivalries based on these distinctions, or on the style in which one prefers to worship, or on the spirituality within which one prays, or on the causes for the common good that one espouses and commits oneself to. We must not allow these distinctions to divide, for that is a recipe for disaster.
The counter example we see right here in this church, right now: welcoming new disciples into the fold of Christ’s flock, embracing those who seek to enter into full communion with his Church and to complete their Christian initiation. It is a joy for us to welcome you, and it is a joy for me personally to thank those of you who have accompanied these brothers and sisters of ours to this significant passage in their faith journey. The bonds of communion we share become very palpable here, at this time.
The Lesson of Lent
How do we preserve and build up these bonds of communion, to move toward ever greater unity as a community of believers? That is the lesson of Lent: we take these forty days to fast with our Lord in the desert. It is important that we take advantage of the practices of Lent, the practices of prayer, fasting, almsgiving and other acts of charity, so that the evil one will not succeed in separating us and thus reach his goal of conquering us and so asserting his dominion of oppression over us. And it is important that we do fast, literally fast, abstaining from eating food, especially foods that we enjoy, so we can feel the difference in our bodies.
This teaches us to be less attached to those things to which we feel attracted, so we can be more attentive to caring for the other. There are other forms of fasting that are efficacious as well, such as fasting from watching television or from social media. But corporal fasting is always an integral part of Lent, and it helps to focus and properly direct our prayer and acts of charity.
We do not live this out, though, in an abstract way. We do not literally go into the desert, or go far away from our everyday circumstances. It is right there, in our everyday life, that we must live this out, not seeking some great miracle or display of majesty, but in the everyday situations in which we find ourselves: our families, our places of work, with schoolmates, with fellow parishioners, with all those with whom we interact on a day-to-day basis. As the saying goes, charity begins at home. Being less focused on oneself and what you want and seeking the good of the other is what love means, and that is what builds up unity, strengthening the bonds of communion we have with one another, and thereby with God.
And we see the fruits of that here. This is something the devil cannot resist. But let us always remember that we can resist him if we remember: remember all our Lord has done for us, all that this time of Lent reminds of, how he freely accepted the most dishonorable death of the Cross in order to forgive us of our sins and reconcile us back to his Father. And we must remember in very practical, concrete ways, not in the abstract: submitting ourselves to the disciplines of Lent – fasting, praying, and seeking always to do good for the other – persevering in acts of penance, and above all in the sacrament of Penance, confessing our sins in the sacrament and receiving the absolution of the priest.
Let us look for these little ways to show God that we remember, that we seek communion with Him by our love and union with one another, so that we, too, with our Lord and with his help, may defeat the devil and so share the glory of heaven. As one Scripture scholar put it, “Our being children of God is not a matter of miracles, but of understanding God’s will through openness to His word and carrying it out in love, trust and obedience.” May God grant us this grace.