IN LAST SUNDAY’S GOSPEL, Luke’s account of the temptation of Our Lord in the desert, the second temptation which the Devil puts before Jesus is when he shows him ‘in a moment all the kingdoms of the world’; he then says ‘I will give you all this power and the glory of these kingdoms, for it has been committed to me and I give it to anyone I choose. Worship me, then, and it shall all be yours.’ We have to imagine what this scene which the Lord saw was like; among other things I was reminded of Scar’s song in the Disney film The Lion King. Ranks of soldiers marching in step, intended to usher in the usurper’s kingdom.
The ‘glory’ of the kingdoms is certainly something which we are meant to think is spectacular. People like military parades – in the gospel account the devil is specifically tempting Our Lord with all that worldly power means; it is real and it means something. What is striking about the devil’s language in the account in Luke’s gospel is what the devil claims about ownership – ‘it has been committed to me and I give it to anyone I choose’. The early Christians, deep down, knew this well. In the centuries when Christians were persecuted by the power and glory of the Roman Empire, glorying in military power and violence, they knew perfectly well that it all belonged to the devil. The temptations of Jesus, which we always hear recounted on the First Sunday of Lent (last Sunday) present us with stark contrasts between the way of God, which is about to be proclaimed in the adult teaching and healing ministry of Jesus, and the way of the devil, the path of evil: and we are meant, at the beginning of the season of Lent, to realise that we face the same straightforward choice between good and evil, between right and wrong. The account of the temptations of Jesus is put before us at the beginning of Lent to help us examine our consciences, think about our lives, and go to confession in Lent in order to receive the gift of God’s forgiveness through the sacrament.
Over the last century one very good thing has happened: a salutary and welcome result of both growing secularisation in much of the world and the sufferings of many Christians through persecution is that all over the world the Catholic Church, and to some extent other Christian communities, is more distanced from the power and glory of the ‘kingdoms of the world’ than at any time in Christian history since persecution against the Church ended in the fourth century. Compared to a hundred years ago, churches are not perceived to be associated with those in power in society (at least not our Church); in most countries there are countless issues where State political policies, from various political parties, are at odds with Christian teaching and the churches are better at saying so than in the past.
The situation in the First World War, just over a century ago, when local churches in all the belligerent countries saw it as a religious duty to tell Christians to support the patriotic war effort, would be unimaginable today. A reason for this is that we have seen in the last century how many people have been killed in the name of national pride and the State’s absolute claims on people’s loyalty. We have grown, all of us, in our sense of what it is that makes us different as Catholic Christians, partly of course because the practice of religious faith now is largely the result of conscious choice rather than convention.
An asset in this are both the Scriptures and the writings of early Christian theologians. For example, St Augustine of Hippo, writing his great work The City of God at the beginning of the fifth century, as the Roman Empire in the west was beginning to fall apart, was concerned to argue against Christians who maintained that since the end of persecution a century before, the Roman Empire could be seen as a good thing and an instrument of God’s will in the world. Augustine would have none of this: the Empire, the ‘earthly city’, was a ‘robbers’ den’, built on coercion and violence: the loyalties of the disciple of Jesus Christ were to the ‘heavenly city’, with radically different values and a different purpose. He knew well that the devil was right – the glory of the kingdoms of the world do belong to him.
Much current political discourse about national sovereignty, ‘control’, and patriotism shows how the State at every level tries to claim absolute loyalty and control over our lives. Increasingly but slowly Christians are learning again to build up centres of resistance founded on better values and love of God. Much language about the State and its claims is frankly idolatrous, as it always has been: but at least we recognise this better than in the past. A task for us in Lent, and particularly in Lent 2019, is to be able to discern this, to recognise ways in which we have got things wrong in terms of our attitudes, and to seek forgiveness and pardon from God. We should also make it our concern to pray for those different parts of the world who suffer because of the power of the State, the glory of the kingdoms of this world, owned by the devil.