Then saith Jesus unto him, Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve. Then the devil leaveth him…
Though it is true that each of us constitutes a personal horizon, it is also true that we share a common vision as Christians. And within that range of vision, there are common landmarks that mean everything to us. Think of a landmark event as something like the true poles of a compass. A compass enables us find the right direction and to make progress in our journey. Along life’s way we individually take compass readings, spiritually speaking, through the Daily Office and other prayers; and as the Body of Christ we are used to gathering on the Lord’s Day to take our common bearings. God provided the children of Israel with his own compass as they journeyed to the Promised Land: a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. God has provided Holy Mother Church with the true compass in the life of his only begotten Son Jesus Christ. From Jesus’ life story we have landmark events that mean everything to us, and from those landmarks we have built our liturgical calendar. He is our true compass. He is our true north. Every year in Lent we begin with one of our most important landmark — our Lord’s Temptation in the wilderness. Let’s take a look.
The doors of heaven swung open at Jesus’ baptism and the Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove, came to light upon his head. Then God the Father spoke:
This is my beloved son with whom I am well pleased.
Immediately after his baptism, Jesus was led into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit that John had witnessed come down from Heaven. St. Mark puts it even stronger:
The Spirit immediately drove him into the wilderness.
This place, this wilderness, this wasteland is referred to in the Old Testament as The Devastation. It is sterile, full of salt deposits from the Dead Sea and no vegetation can grow there. It is also the location of the Qumran with hundreds of limestone cliffs and caves. If you have ever seen photographs of the Qumran you know what a lifeless place it is. David hid from King Saul in and around this region. This was the place known as the Wilderness where Jesus was tempted of the devil.
His baptism and the Father’s revelation was the first step into his public ministry — the declaration by the Father that Jesus was his Son. The second step was the testing — proving that declaration and that is what the temptation of our Lord in the wilderness is all about. This narrative is not meant to demonstrate to Christians the manner by which temptations may be overcome. That is not to say that lessons for living cannot be drawn from our Lord’s personal experience of temptation — that is the directions that the compass points out are true. But the danger of a utilitarian approach, that is always looking for way to fight my personal temptation, is that it will overshadow the meaning that the event had for Jesus and his Apostles. That meaning, simply put, is that Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Mary, is the Son of God and he has come to defeat the enemies of God and he will do it and one day all creation will burst into blossom because God himself has come to our rescue. The temptation is all about Jesus, all about his identity, all about his mission. That is what the devil meant to dispute and destroy by force or fraud or deceit and trickery. “If thou be the Son of God…” is the challenge, the resistance, the hostility we will hear from this moment forward in one way or another throughout Jesus’s ministry. But here is the beginning of the conflict:
If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread…
Notice that nowhere in the Old Testament is there any indication that stones will be turned into bread by the Messiah. Not even God does that. Jesus will in fact take a few loaves of bread and a few fish and he will multiply them hand over fist to feed thousands of hungry people. But he never turned a stone into bread because that would be magic and magic overturns the sacramental principle, which is the very principle of the life of Christ and of the life of his Church. What is that sacramental principle? There are two parts to the sacramental principle: first of all the material creation is not the opposite of the spiritual, but in fact the material is spiritual. The great example, the great Archetype of that truth is the Incarnation itself. “The Word became Flesh.” The life-giving sacraments of the Church are all based upon the fact that God himself has entered the material creation as a material creature. The Word did not come down from Glory like Birth of Venus; or like Athena bursting forth from the head of Zeus a full adult. He has a mother like all of us. That leads us to the second sacramental principle: Grace does not destroy nature; grace perfects nature. So the Word by becoming flesh perfects flesh, the Word will turn water into wine, multiply real loaves and fishes, loosen the tied-tongues of the children of Israel, and give sight to the blind — but he never overturns nature, he always perfects, completes nature. The Word became Flesh without destroying flesh. The devil is tempting Jesus to use his divinity to work magic, to destroy nature. This Jesus rejects.
But even more devastating to Jesus’ identity–turning stones into bread would be a rejection of God’s will for his Son. The will of the Father for the Son, at that moment, involved fasting and hunger for his Son. Jesus loved his Father with his whole heart, soul and mind.
But he answered and said: It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeded out of the mouth of God.
Jesus rebuffs the devil’s second temptation with a quotation from Deuteronomy 6:16: “Thou shalt not tempt the Lord your God.” Israel had demanded signs from God over and over again –- a testing of God.
Jesus finally defeated the devil at the end of the third temptation which is really the temptation to avoid the Cross and still possess the whole world, with the words of Deuteronomy 6:13: “Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God and him only shalt thou serve.”
The temptation of Christ in the wilderness provides the Church with true bearings, orienting us for our journey back to God. The sense of direction we gain from this event, the path of Christ is absolutely reliable because he is God made flesh and he loves us. Furthermore you have been empowered to resist temptations that will lead us away from God because you are baptized. This is not hard to grasp, but it is hard to do. There is nothing I can say that will make resisting temptation effortless or painless. But any real, authentic Catholic community of love — a parish — will provide you with opportunities for great personal sacrifice, ample occasions for the imitation of Christ. How important is it to you to follow Jesus? How important is it to be the person you claim to be? It is time to put away childish things. Time to be the adult. Take responsibility. Today as we come to the altar of God to receive the body and blood of Christ our God pray he will stiffen our resolve to be the people we claim to be.