THEN was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil. And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was afterward an-hungered.
By the time Jesus enters the Wilderness in the Gospel, Matthew has set grand expectations for Jesus as the fulfillment of God’s redemptive work through the children of Abraham. All of history has culminated to this one moment when Jesus, the Eternal Word, the Son of God, enters into the world. There have been fourteen generations from Abraham to David, fourteen generations from David to Babylon exile, and fourteen more generations from the Babylon exile to Mary and Joseph. The stage is set for a new Abraham, a fulfillment of the covenant. When the baby Jesus is brought into the temple, Simeon knows it at once–in fact, he is one of the few people during Jesus’ whole lifetime who understands his mission. He takes the baby into his arms and says: “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word; for mine eyes have seen thy salvation which thou hast prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to thy people Israel.” The wise men bring the same news to Herod: furious, he slaughters the Holy Innocents, and Joseph protects the Holy Family during the reign of Herod and his son. As soon as the Family returns to Israel, Matthew cuts to John the Baptist, preparing the way in the Wilderness. He is, as we expect, intense, full of zeal and unrelenting in his commitment. Jesus then comes to John, asking to be baptized. As Jesus comes up from the water, “Behold, the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and alighting on him; and lo, a voice from heaven, saying ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.'” With this declaration, God has declared the personhood of Jesus, but God also has revealed Jesus as the fulfillment of the Old Testament: he is the true Prophet, the true Israelite, and the New Adam. Matthew’s account of the temptation draws out these Old Testament themes and events. First, Moses fasted for forty days as he wrote the ten commandments in the presence of God. Elijah fasted after having been fed by the angel with bread during his flight from Jezebel. After he had fasted, the Lord God met and spoke with Elijah. These prophets fast in order to accomplish the work of God, and Jesus’ fast presents him in his prophetic role, the great advocate for his people. Second, Matthew is also calling to mind Jesus’ connection with Israel as a nation. Israel wandered in the wilderness for forty years and failed to follow the commands of God, Jesus now is presented as the conquerer in the wilderness. He is the perfect model, following the will of His Father despite the temptations of Satan. The connections, however, go beyond Jesus as a fulfillment of the prophets or Israel, he can also be seen as the New Adam, the model of a re-created humanity, healed from the wounds of the fall. Adam was in the garden with every need provided and with the companionship of Eve. Jesus is now alone, hungry, and in a desert wilderness. As Adam had every advantage to not sin, now Jesus is tempted with everything in favor of the tempter himself–and yet Jesus prevails where Adam failed. Gregory the Great points out how Jesus is now answering the sins of Adam, reversing the destruction that Adam wrought.
“The old enemy tempted the first man through his belly, when he persuaded him to eat of the forbidden fruit; through ambition when he said, “Ye shall be as gods;” through covetousness when he said, “Knowing good and evil;” By the same method in which he had overcome the first Adam, in that same was he overcome when he tempted the second Adam. He tempted through the belly when he said, “Command that these stones become loaves;” through ambition when he said, ‘If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down from hence;” through covetousness of lofty condition in the words, “All these things will I give thee.'”
Here we see a true reversal of Adam’s sin by Jesus, the true Son of God. This characteristic, his Sonship, is exactly what Satan wanted him to deny. In each of the temptations, Satan challenges the declaration of God at Jesus’ baptism. “If thou be the Son of God”–that is the title God the Father gave Jesus just prior to the temptation! Satan is challenging Jesus’ sonship, but in each challenge, Jesus puts his Father’s will before his. Instead of instantly making food for himself, Jesus allows His Father to give it to him as He did for Israel in the wilderness. He refuses to expect, as a false prophet would, that God supports those who put him to the test. Instead, he obeys as a perfect son. Finally, he denies the temptation for worldly power as the Pharisees and others (including Peter at some points) expected from him. Instead, he humbly serves in the kingdom of His Father. Jesus reverses Adam’s sins, faces the devil and conquers as the New Adam, the true Son of God.
The devil is not amused and leaves him, perhaps furious that the age-old and dependable temptations he put before Adam have not conquered the New Adam. Jesus leaves the Wilderness and immediately begins his ministry. He calls Peter and Andrew, heals the sick, and continues to cast out demons. What joy, what hope there is in the account of the temptation–the fall has been recast, the devil’s lies seen through, and his head under the foot of Christ.
What is more, through our baptism, we die the death of our old man, and we rise again in Christ. We are now a new creation, adopted as sons and daughters of God because we are joined to Jesus and His sonship. The wounds of our father Adam are now being healed by the precious body and blood of Christ and we are instilled with the theological virtues. Because we are in Christ, our lives will take on his model: a model that includes suffering, times in the wilderness, loving others instead of ourselves, and ultimately losing our lives so that we might gain eternal life. This is the great irony of Christian life — something the Devil does not understand.
In the Epistle, St. Paul brings out the ironic life of the Christian–though we live in the world, we truly are new creations, adopted sons and daughters of God. The devil thinks he is tricky when he asks Jesus to throw himself down from the pinnacle, but look at what Paul says. Paul has already given of his life in obedience to the Lord. Paul has stood at the door of death in shipwreck, torture, stonings, but he has gained eternal life. The devil tempts Jesus with all the kingdoms of the world, not realizing, as Paul puts it, that though Christians are poor, they are rich and possess all things!
You may see now how important these passages are for us as we enter the Lenten wilderness. We are given a model to follow and a reminder of how our lives as Christians are lived by a wisdom not of this world. Christians grow strong by fasting, we gain the world by giving away to the poor, and we live to God by dying to ourselves. As Jesus fasted to prepare himself for the temptations of the devil and for his ministry, we too should fast as it strengthens and prepares us for coming temptations.
Our collect for Lent I puts it beautifully: “Give us grace to use such abstinence, that, our flesh being subdued to the Spirit, we may ever obey thy godly motions in righteousness and true holiness, to thy honour and glory.” Let us remember Fr. Glenn’s reminder here: The word flesh in this case does not mean our actual body, but the “totality of man, soul and body together, in so far as he is fallen and separated from God.” (Kallistos Ware, The True Nature of Fasting). Likewise, Spirit means the totality of man as he is a New Creation.
Therefore, our Lenten fast does two things. First, it builds dependence–exactly what Jesus showed when he conquered Satan. In our fast, our literal hunger and tiredness strips away our over-confidence and autonomy, and it turns us towards a sense of inward brokenness and contrition. As created humans, we are dependent on God not only for our being, but also for our happiness, redemption, and salvation. Our response should model Jesus: one of dependence and humility.
But it would be misleading to end a discussion on Lent just on humility. Fasting is not a denial of the created world and our humanity. Christians revere the body. Through fasting we purify our wills so that we may truly use our bodies as they were meant to be used. This is the second side of our Lenten fast, the side of joy. Fasting literally brings a lightness and clearheadedness in our bodies, that is matched with a deep joy. This joy can only come from Christ so that we can say with St. Paul: “as dying, we live; as chastened, and not killed; as sorrowful, yet alway rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing all things.”