In all the glitz and glamour of the Oscars, last week, one small movie made by a pair of Canadian filmmakers took home a golden statue. Between, the Matthew McCaughaneys and the Jennifer Lawrence’s, it was easily overlooked. Who pays much attention to the award for Best Documentary short, especially when it’s about a little old lady, lacking in glamour? But even though it was a small movie – just 36 minutes long and with no special effects – it captured a very big heart, and a remarkable tale. It tells, in her own words, the story of Alice Herz-Sommer, the oldest known Holocaust survivor. She is the woman in apartment No 6, as the title declares, and music saved her life.
But not just music. As we will learn from the movie, Alice’s marvelous talent on the piano may have saved her from death in the concentration camp. While it may have made her useful, it was her attitude and her resilience that kept her alive. She lost a husband to the Holocaust. She scraped through with a young son, inspiring his imagination so he would forget to be hungry, and she went on to live a long and happy life despite the horror she had endured.
“I know there is bad in the world,” Alice once said, “but I look for good. Wherever you look, there is beauty everywhere.”
Her life, we might say, was a Lenten journey – one in which she faced down the devil in the darkest of moments, and survived by choosing to see, in the truth of what the world is, it’s beauty first of all.
In our gospel this morning, we find Jesus embarking on his own Lenten journey, taking some time away for himself, fasting for those forty fateful days in the desert. We know who he meets; the tempter, the gospel calls him.
Three times he tries to sway Jesus off the better path. First with pride: “If you are who you say you are,” the devil sneers, “then prove it – turns these stones into bread.” But Jesus refuses- his power – his good works are not for elevating his own status but for serving others and God.
Secondly, the devil says to Jesus, “If God so loves you, then jump off the pinnacle of this temple, for surely God will rescue you – and then I will see it for myself.” But Jesus tosses that one off too: he doesn’t need to test God’s faith in him. His belief is enough.
And Finally, the devil tries one last angle: greed. “Look at these kingdoms, admire these riches, follow me and I will give each one to you.” But Jesus, is quick to end that notion: “Away with you Satan,” he says. “I follow no one but God.”
Temptation follows us too. We face everyday the temptation to be greedy, even though there is a cost to others – and to ourselves – when we bend the rules to suit our own ends. We have boundless examples of that – financially and politically. We know all too well the cost of hubris – the price when a person, or a race or a nation, tries to lift themselves above another. And we know the price of testing the love of others and of God needlessly – when we have decided our trust, the action that makes love pure, is not enough.
And each day too, as I am sure Alice was at times, we are tempted to give up – which is the most dangerous temptation of all. It is easy to bend the rules, and chase glory. It is easy to give weight to a suspicion. It is easy to want to prove your value, especially when others demand you do.
The temptation of Jesus is our story too.
What is the significance, in our gospel lesson, that the devil approaches Jesus when he is alone, when he has taken this time away for quiet contemplation? We ourselves surely know the risk in those quiet moments. These days, we are told often to meditate to reduce our stress, to exorcise those demons of worry and anxiety with yoga, or mindfulness. These are effective forms of prayer to clear our head so to speak. But it is difficult, even in those clearing efforts, for our worries and temptations not to fill that space even more loudly, not to mention when we are busy running around, when there are things that need to get done. In those times, we might hear the same questions: Am I good enough? Am I loved? If only, I had more…. The story of Jesus and the devil gives us those answers. The same ones we might use for our own fears and worries. That we don’t need someone else to tell us we have value, that being love by God is assured, and that chasing a pot of gold leads in the wrong direction.
But this is also part of Lent – a timely exercise in these hurried stressed out days. Not just to meditate – but to be truly mindful in our meditation. Listen for what is sneaking in and turn it around. That is what Jesus demonstrates for us, in the end, that we are in charge, we decide what temptations we hear, we decide the world that we see.
Alice would say, there is beauty all around, even in the bleakest of moments. She found it through music, which is for many of us, also part of meditation. Music coloured the world for her, and protected her. Even when she was older, she would play the piano for hours a day to her neighbor’s delight. “Music is my life,” she said. “Music is God.” I imagine what she meant was that music allowed her to hear God – especially when the devil was shouting in her face.
So let this be our Lenten challenge. To find that thing, that quiet activity, that corner in our house, that piece of music helps us hear God, no matter who else is shouting.
As it happened, Alice passed away last week. She was 110. She didn’t live long enough to see her movie win the Oscar. But perhaps, she didn’t have to. She had told her story, and now it is for us to decide what to make of it. Amen