In any culture, literature reflects a peoples’ story and experience. Writers and playwrights often reveal things about ourselves that we never suspected. They open our eyes with insights about the human condition. About the way we live.
Many years ago, Thornton Wilder wrote a play called “Our Town.” The play is about a mythical small town. One of the main characters named Emily dies, but she is given the opportunity to live one day of her life again. She chooses the day after her 14th birthday. That was the happiest day. But it does not work the second time.
The problem is, she knows her future; what’s going to happen to those around her. And she says, “I knew of all the false gods that my friends were going to worship.” Do any humans ever realize life while they live it?
As we begin this Lenten season, Emily’s question is an appropriate one: Do we realize life while we live it? In other words, do we understand what our lives are about? Are we aware of our purpose? Do we see the reason for our existence or are we content to worship other gods? Turn into demons?
Jesus is offered other gods in our Gospel today. The god of security and plenty. “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to turn into bread. You could feed the world. No more hunger. They would flock to you.” Jesus replies: “Man does not live by bread alone.”
The god of power: “I will give you all this power and glory of these kingdoms. I will back off. I will not be around to play havoc in the world. It is all yours, if you only worship me.” Jesus replies, “You shall do homage to the Lord your God alone.”
Next, the god of sensationalism: “If you are the Son of God, then throw yourself down from here. You know that God will not let you die. He will send angels to take care of you. Think of the publicity. Think of the sensation. You will be an overnight success.” Jesus replies, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”
Lent is a good time to ask ourselves what are who are our false gods. Does any person, place or thing come before God in our lives? Do we worship money, drugs, power or drink? Preoccupation with work, my career, my drive up the ladder? Only you know what false gods are. Only you know what you run after, what you crave. What you worship other than God.
What are those things that keep you from realizing life while you live it? How do you separate yourselves from false gods? Will you have to give something up? Let something go?
First, you have to give up something sweeter than candy. Perhaps more destructive than sin. You have to give up ana absorption within yourself. Where you take yourself all too seriously. Where the days and nights rotate around you. Your heartache and health. Your successes and failures, your problems and inward frustrations.
We are a people of contradiction, a bundle of paradoxes. We believe and doubt, hope and despair, love and hate. We are exciting and boring, enchanted and disillusioned. We are cool on the outside and we hurt within.
We feel bad about feeling good. So often, we are afraid of our joy; feel guilty if we do not feel guilty. We are trusting and suspicious; selfless and selfish. Wide open and locked in. We know so much and so little. We are honest and we still play games. Especially within ourselves in the space of an hour.
But in spite of this, we know that the God we follow is a God who understands our contradictions and our temptations to follow other gods.
Lent in the Catholic tradition has always been a time for giving up. What sounds so negative is actually enriching. Giving up can be a way of surrendering to God. This is a time to give up all those false gods that bow us down. Then you will realize the true wonder of life as you live it. Then you will have the grace and strength to say to all those false gods that pull you and tug you, “Get behind me. I will only worship the one true God.”
Baby Boomers will remember the name Alice Cooper. He was one of the first shocking rock acts. He used to parade on stage with makeup and live snakes. He glorified rebellion, immorality, idolatry and excess. So can you imagine how surprised people were when Alice Cooper converted to Christianity in 1995?
He said, like Jesus, “I went to the desert and I learned to regret all those false gods.” He is now involved in a church in Arizona and even sings in the choir.
Some time ago, someone sent him an email saying he had sold out. He did not have to join a church; did not have to become part of the establishment. Cooper replied with a poem:
“I wish you deeper and deeper oneness with God. I pray that you will feel it. That the presence of Christ will make your spirit sin, your bones quake, your blood to run thin, your very pulse to create a din. Aware that Heaven is not up, but Heaven is within.”