I first learned to play chess from my dad. I was about 10 or 11 at the time. … Now and again, my dad would ask to play with me. I don’t recall any of those games except the last one. I believe really good chess players think 4 or 5 moves ahead into the game. I don’t know that personally since I’m not one of them. But that last game, my dad said I must have had some kind of strategy, and he resigned. I never knew what he saw in my game. I didn’t know what I was doing. I understood the basics, what each little piece could and could not do. … But further than that, I was completely clueless. Maybe my dad just got tired and decided to quickly end his misery. So I have never played chess with him again.
What has intrigued me about the game is “Who makes the first move?” If you play, you may know the answer. The white pieces go first. … Whoever moves first can easily control the board. Whoever moves second might play more in response to the first player’s moves. … Really good players stop before the checkmate, resigning while the end is still a distance away, before it happens. In my mind it matters a lot who makes the first move.
I have spent some time lately reflecting on my journey. I think back to childhood and the times I got into trouble, the times I should have gotten in trouble but didn’t, and the times I lived to get in trouble again another day. I have vivid memories of the funeral of a classmate’s little sister when I was in the second grade, and my grandfather’s when I was ten. I remember shooting my sister with a BB gun (that’s for another day). I remember setting a dangerous fire in an empty lot close to home. I clearly remember in the fifth grade getting in the back seat of a two-seater child’s tricycle, with a cousin in the driver’s seat, and barreling down an empty street on a 30 degree incline, smashing into the curb halfway down, sailing through the air and landing on my hands and knees in a pile of gravel. Ouch. I remember telling my parents I wanted to be a priest; I was in the sixth grade. I remember leaving home for the first time, fearful yet excited. I remember friends and classmates who left the seminary without explanation, while I wondered why not me? I remember arriving in this country for the first time 28 years ago, with exciting and wonderful dreams for my future, yet truly uncertain what would become of me. I remember lying face down on the marble floor of the cathedral in Boston when I was ordained a deacon, my mind swimming with inexplicable joy. In my first years of priesthood I wondered often what it would have been like to be married and have children. Sometimes I still wonder. I remember 3 years after ordination coming to a major crisis point, and I seriously considered leaving the priesthood and starting new somewhere out west without telling my own family. I remember just a few years ago standing in this empty church after the last mass wondering what would have become of me if my life had turned out differently.
Each time I asked the question “Why?” I heard the counter-question “Why not?” Each time I asked “How different would life have otherwise been?” I heard the subtle reminder “God has been immensely wonderful; what are you complaining about?” At every fork in the road of my life I have come to understand only in hindsight that there was a much larger plan than I was privileged to see. Looking back, it comes into clearer focus. But if I knew then what I know now, I could have been more trusting, more cooperative, less resistant, less demanding. It is that experience of disappointment and dependence, heartbreak and hope, inner turmoil and eventual acceptance, that has shaped my own journey of faith. I invite you to examine the details of your own life, and you may conclude differently about God’s presence. I look back on mine and I have to admit it was God who always made the first move, who always had the advantage, who always planned 4 or 5 moves ahead into the game.
The scriptures tell us today that God always made the first move in everything that had to do with our ultimate good. In the story of Noah and his family’s escape from the flood, it was God who chose them for life. It was God who carried them safely over the waters. It was God who brought them to dry land. It was God who promised them and their descendants his care, his compassion, and his protection. …
Peter reminds us in the second reading that God’s care and compassion gave us a savior whose death would free us from our slavery to sin. Noah’s escape from death and devastation in a vessel made of wood is an image of our escape from death and devastation brought about by sin through the wood of the cross on which our savior died. The waters of the flood washed away all the evil in the world, and symbolically washed clean those whose lives were spared in the ark. Through the waters of baptism, we have been purified by grace, and sent to bring God’s reconciliation and peace to all people.
In the gospel, Jesus is driven into the desert to be tempted by the devil. He went into the desert knowing it held death and darkness and evil. But he wanted to show us that we need not fear the enemy. So he faced temptation with resolve and courage. He showed us that evil can be conquered and destroyed. Then after this experience of trial and purification, he announced God’s plan to Israel, that God calls us to return to him, that we turn our back to sin, and put faith in the good news of his salvation. Again God makes the first move, offering us his grace. He had to experience temptation as we do. So knowing our struggle firsthand, he is able to understand our weakness. His offer to save us is not born of pity, but of true understanding and genuine concern. God has been where we are. With the strength of his grace, we can attain his victory as well.
As we begin this holy season of Lent, God has already made the first move – inviting us to reconciliation with himself and with each other, inviting us to embrace the life of grace he offers. This Lenten season, 6 of our young people enter the final portion of their journey to Baptism. They will reflect more intently on the journey they have traveled so far, to recognize God’s plan, and respond with greater willingness and understanding. God indeed has a plan. God knows what he wants to accomplish. God is 4 or 5 moves ahead of us. And he waits patiently. People of God, your move.