The Gospel we are given for our consideration on the First Sunday of Lent is always an account of the Temptation of Jesus in the Desert. This year we are presented with St Luke’s version of this important incident in the life of Christ. Mark’s version of the story is, as we would expect, very brief while the accounts given by Matthew and Luke are more extended and broadly similar but with slight differences in the order of the three temptations.
One thing that all three of the Evangelists stress is that Jesus was led into the wilderness by the Spirit. In fact, Mark puts it even stronger because he says that the Spirit ‘drove’ Jesus into the desert which sounds as if Jesus was unwilling. We might wonder what the Spirit was doing when he led Jesus into temptation, because it is not something that we would think to be particularly logical knowing as much as we do the nature of God.
Of course, any temptation is a testing and remembering that Jesus was at the same time both fully human and fully divine we can conjecture that it was the human aspect of his nature that was being tested. There is absolutely no doubt about the outcome. Jesus was never going to yield to the blandishments of the devil; there was never any danger that he would weaken and give in to the temptations of the Devil.
The actual nature of the three temptations are rather interesting because they are not the sorts of things that would tempt us. Jesus is tempted to turn stones into bread, presumably to assuage his hunger after a severe fast. He is then tempted to worship Satan and offered power over the world in exchange. And the last of the temptations is to prove his divinity by throwing himself off the Temple parapet. The things that tempt us are far more mundane: greed, selfishness, lust and so on.
I think that we are offered this account of the Temptation very early in Christ’s public ministry to emphasise that his whole life was a struggle against the powers of sin and evil. And the fact that he is able to resist the Temptations is a sign that in the Pascal Mystery he will ultimately overcome sin and death.
You will, no doubt, be aware that there is no mention of the Temptation in the Gospel of John which differs from the other Gospels in many particular respects. However, scholars tell us that St John must have been familiar with the story of the Temptation in the Desert since there are some references to the three temptations in various places in his text even though they are not actually located in the desert.
Jesus rejects each one of the Temptations with a scripture text: ‘Man does not live on bread alone’, ‘You must worship the Lord your God and serve him alone’, and ‘You must not put the Lord your God to the test.’ We are very familiar with these quotations and the truth of them shines out from the pages of scripture. Wily though the Devil is he cannot overcome the Son of God either through trickery or clever argument. The struggle between them both is over before it has even started; there is never any doubt as to who the winner will be in this confrontation.
We are very prosaically told that during his forty days in the desert Jesus ‘ate nothing and at the end was hungry.’ Well, anyone would be hungry after all that fasting, if not actually dead. Apparently depending on whether a person is properly hydrated it is actually possible to fast for forty days, but I suspect that most of us would have succumbed after several days of severe fasting.
Lent is most specifically a season of fasting and we are told that the forty days of Lent are in imitation of Christ’s forty days in the desert. Interestingly the day on which Lent begins is Ash Wednesday and it is always held precisely forty-six days before Easter. That is the forty days plus the six Sundays. If you want to be technical about it, we can see that the Sundays are not actually intended to be fast days even though most people do keep them as such.
Many Christians do not take Lent seriously, unlike Muslims who during Ramadan are not permitted to eat anything at all during the hours of daylight. We might not decide to be so rigorous but we really ought to do something serious during Lent in recognition of what Jesus endured in the desert and for all the other things that he has done on our behalf.
We are told by the Church that our three Lenten promises ought to be an increase in prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Each of these is a spiritual value and by assiduously keeping these resolutions as well as we are able we will certainly be deepening our spiritual and moral life. This season of Lent is a time during which we deepen our faith and come closer to God. We become more aware of all that Christ did on our behalf and we more fully embrace his Gospel of Love and attempt to come ever closer to him.
Sometimes we wake up towards the end of Lent and realise that we haven’t really done anything particularly special to mark this most holy season, and then comes the temptation give up on the whole thing and do nothing at all. In order to avoid this problem perhaps today as we mark the First Sunday of Lent we ought to make some definite and realisable resolutions. Then we should stick to them and make them a real sign of our fidelity to Christ.
It is up to each person to decide for themselves what they can do during Lent. It could be giving up some favourite food or foregoing certain meals. It could be deciding to attend daily mass or to make the Stations of the Cross once a week. It could be helping our elderly neighbours or spending extra time in prayer. We might want to restrict our use of the internet. Or maybe we decide to do something specific to help the poor. Many people decide to abstain from alcohol or meat on certain days. There are lots of different things we can do. The important thing, though, is that we actually do something and stick to it.
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket