1st Sunday in Lent
The 17th Century French philosopher, Blaise Pascal, wrote about a God-sized hole in each one of us, which is either filled by God Himself, or we spend our lives in an insatiable quest of trying to fill that hole with something else. In the 4th Century, St. Augustine described that same phenomenon: “Thou hast made us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.”
Martin Luther, in his earthy German way, was typically more blunt. He said we’re like donkeys. And either God rides us, directing us wherever He wills, or Satan rides us, wherever he wills. Problem is, as Luther developed that picture with the help of St. Paul, both riders are there on our back, and we donkeys are not good at all in distinguishing one rider from the other! Ach, ja…but we can make a lot of noise braying about it!
What Luther observed is still true. We’re not very good at this! We say, “The best way to deal with temptation is to give in to it! Why deny the way you feel?” Or…we become more Puritan than Christian, launching some sort of sacred “Just say ‘No’” campaign, for fear that someone somewhere is having fun!
What we have in our Gospel Reading today is a love story. So in fine Lutheran tradition our cantata today sings about a famous love story! In the Gospel Reading, the tempter makes three easy pitches to fill the hole in Jesus’ life—bread for His hunger, the world on a silver platter instead of by means of the agony of the cross, lastly wooing Jesus with an offer of God’s presence there in the God-forsaken wilderness.
But Jesus’ head isn’t turned by the seducer’s song. He is already so full of the Spirit from His baptism, so full of God, that despite His hunger, despite His alone-ness, despite the cross on His horizon, Jesus is at peace; He knows whose He is; he knows whom He serves!
In our cantata parable, the female lead is named Christine, a variation on the name Christian. And there is a big hole in her life…except she doesn’t realize it until the Phantom starts putting his moves on her. A gifted musician, the Phantom is, in Christine’s mind, the angel of music, a fable her late father had told her as a child. And, behold, her operatic career blossoms because of his influence, shades of the old Faust legend.
She sings, “In sleep he sang to me, in dreams he came, that voice which calls to me and speaks my name… He’s there inside my mind.” And if not exactly the voice of God, certainly it must be His angel, the angel of music. “Somehow I know he’s always with me…the unseen genius.” She is smitten. But after all, the Phantom has been very smooth in his seduction. “Let your mind start a journey through a strange new world, leave all thoughts of the world you knew behind. Let your soul take you where you long to be! …only then can you belong to me.”
And Christine’s world, the Christian’s world, is complicated in its restless labyrinth, because evil often does appear good, and good seems so evil, this masquerade of a fallen world, “seething shadows breathing lies.” Surrounded by masks, but robbed of her father’s steadying presence because he’s dead, Christine sings tearfully about that simpler time: “Wishing I could hear your voice again, knowing that I never would…” But it’s been too many years, too many tears.
And saying good-bye to that childhood faith, she is ready to believe the Phantom’s lie that there is a point of no return, a threshold, which once crossed, means there is no redemption…only the dark passion of a Liebestod, love’s fulfillment in the flames of death. Like the aria in Richard Wagner’s famous opera, Tristan und Isolde: “Ertrinken, versinken—unbewusst—höchste Lust!” (“To drown, to sink—unconscious—highest bliss!”)
Oh, and we Puritan Christians are embarrassed by such things, ashamed somehow that we are created male and female. “No, no! Sing something else, something more spiritual and uplifting!”
We forget that God Himself became flesh, became a man, Jesus, tempted in every way as we are…though in modesty, the Bible leaves those temptations largely unnamed. But it’s in this Jesus that the desires of our human restlessness are stilled NOT by escaping our humanity into spirituality. No! Our humanity, and all the hungers of being male and female, is taken up into God, redeemed in and with and through the God-Man, Jesus.
So Raoul enters our musical parable. And by his love for Christine, a true love like Christ’s for us, she learns to recognize the Phantom’s possessive seductions for what they are. Raoul even descends into hell for her, his life into the balance of death for her. And there in the dark hellish depths of the Phantom’s world, Christine shines with grace even toward her masked seducer, despite his hideous face and more hideous soul. There in that wilderness she can love the unlovable because the other greater love has joined her world with his self-offering.
He sings to her, “No more talk of darkness, forget these wild-eyed fears; I’m here, nothing can harm you, my words will warm and calm you.” It’s what many a church composer has done, even the great Lutheran composer, Johann Sebastian Bach. Taking a cue from the Bible’s Song of Solomon, our two lovers sing a duet, like the love song between Christ and the Christian soul, singing of a love that does not end in the flames of death, but rises like Easter out of the seductive, possessive darkness into the light of hope and liberating promise: “Anywhere you go, let me go too. Love me, that’s all I ask of you.”
So into our own wilderness, with all of its gnawing hungers; into the depths of our darkness, this labyrinth where night is blind, and the Phantom is there inside our mind…redemption’s love song is heard, because Another has entered this dark wilderness with us; Another comes with love so great as to lay down His life for us. As King David once sang, “Righteousness and peace have kissed each other.”
Thus, by His love we know love. And in Christ, our wilderness is no longer so hungry, our darkness no longer devoid of light. With Him our soul bursts into singing, “Anywhere You go, let me go too! …that’s all I ask of You!”