Last Wednesday, i.e. 'Ash Wednesday,' we began our Lenten pilgrimage and today is the First Sunday of Lent. Lent is a Holy Season, a time of grace, a period comprising forty days during which the whole Church renews itself through prayer, fasting and works of piety.
On this first Sunday of Lent, the Opening Reading of the Liturgy from the Book of Deuteronomy is, rather unexpectedly, the very ancient ritual by which the Israelite people gave thanks to God for the land they had received by offering something of the first-fruits of that land. At the end of their forty years wandering in the desert, Moses speaks to the people and he prepares them for their new life in the Promised Land. That is what the Lenten season is meant to do for us also.
The Hebrew people had been liberated from slavery and had every reason to be grateful to God. In today's reading, Moses reminds them of the great things God had done. He tells them to recall and declare always how God changed their life from that of an Aramaean nomad, from that of a slave in Egypt. He then led them through the desert and gave them a land flowing with milk and honey. And finally, now that they will have a land of their own, they are told to celebrate the first harvest in the Promised Land.
The deliverance from their Egyptian captivity was the first stepping stone to a completely new life in the Promised Land. However, the trials of life in the desert caused them to waver in their resolve to be loyal to the God who saves. But in the midst of trial and hardship matched by stern discipline, whenever they called on the name of the Lord, He saved them. A similar discipline is necessary for us, as we deal with the daily temptations encountered in our pursuit of Christian living.
Again, just as Moses in the First Reading wanted the people to express their faith, in the Second Reading of today from his Letter to the Romans, St. Paul calls on the Christians of Rome to "confess with their lips that Jesus is Lord." He reminds them, and us too, that we must truly believe that Jesus rose from the dead if we hope to be saved. Through Jesus, God's great mercy embraces us and makes us "justified," or right with God.
Scripture scholars tell us that in this passage, St. Paul records a new testament of faith made by the early Christians just before being baptized. Christ, now, is the visible presence of God amongst His people. In the early Church, two cultures of people were listening to the preaching of the apostles and becoming Christians: the Jews and the Greeks. These two cultures were very different. How could these two very different groups of people having different cultural and religious backgrounds get along in the same Church? Paul's answer is: Our belief in the Lord Jesus, risen from the dead, makes us one. This is what matters - It is calling on the name of the Lord that saves us.
The forty days of Lent correspond to Jesus’ own forty days spent in the desert. For him, it was a period of preparation for his coming mission. Traditionally, every year, on the First Sunday of Lent the Gospel Reading speaks of the temptations of Jesus in the desert; so, it may not perhaps be wrong to call it 'the Temptation Sunday.' At the end of the forty days – as described in St. Matthew and St. Luke – Jesus had three encounters with the Evil One; St. Mark too mentions about the temptation, but he does not give the detailed account of the event.
This is Year C of the Liturgical Year, and so today we have St. Luke's account of the temptation. According to St. Luke this incident takes place between the baptism of Jesus and the start of his public mission, beginning at Nazareth. Immediately after his baptism, the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness for a time of prayer and fasting. The so-called 'temptations' came as inner reflections about his baptismal experience and how to do what he now perceived his divine mission to be.
It might be worth noting that we may not be dealing here with a strictly historical happening. This passage takes us back to the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. Yet this was not the report of a single incident, but a commentary on the entire course of Jesus' ministry. Time and again Jesus must have been tempted to authenticate his mission by a display of miraculous power or to undertake the role of a political Messiah. So, rather than just seeing them as three consecutive temptations happening almost simultaneously at a particular moment, we should perhaps see them as three key areas where Jesus was tempted to compromise his whole mission during his public life. They were not just passing temptations of the moment, but temptations with which he was beset all through his public life.
The three temptations of Jesus are the three essential weapons that the devil has in his arsenal to destroy humanity: The first is of appetite (pleasure/materialism) – to change stones into bread; the second is of arrogance (pride/boasting) - to worship the devil who can give power and wealth; and the third is of ambition (power/fame) - to jump from the top of the Temple. We notice that Luke reverses the second and third temptations from Matthew’s version in order to make Jerusalem the climax of the temptations just as it is the final destiny of Jesus’ mission. We also notice the hidden assumption in the temptations of the devil. The devil is attacking Jesus' own identity - "If you are the Son of God," then he says, "do what I ask you to do." Jesus refuses to fall into the trap of the devil. Does Jesus have a need to prove who he is? Of course not. Isn’t everybody trying to protect their self-identity? Is not everybody looking for their own self-definition in bodily pleasures or material possessions, power, control, ambition? Jesus resists all temptations by turning to the Holy Scripture. With each temptation Jesus responds with quotes from the Bible and therein is victorious in times of temptation. Again, some of us may struggle with this concept. For if Jesus is the Son of God, how and why could he be tempted? Someone has said, 'You are not tempted because you are evil; you are tempted because you are human.' The account of the temptations thus places heavy emphasis on the humanity of Jesus. Jesus was like us in all things but sin. He was tempted in every way that we are, but he persevered because he was true to his roots and was ever so conscious that he was “Filled with the Spirit.”
Moreover, the temptations presented to Jesus recall the experiences of the Israelite people - they wandered in the desert for forty years; Christ wandered for forty days! The Israelite people grumbled about not having enough food, but Jesus says “It is not on bread alone that we live but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Israel constantly tended to chase after false gods (e.g. the golden calf), but Jesus recognizes only one God. “You must worship the Lord your God and serve him alone.” Israel tested God at Massah and Meribah to provide them with water, but Jesus refuses to manipulate God. “You must not put the Lord your God to the test.”
These temptations also mirror the most common temptations Christians experience today – the three P's viz. Pleasure, Pride & Power OR the three A's viz. Appetite, Arrogance & Ambition. The temptation to extreme pleasure (appetite/materialism) is a constant attraction in every one's life; and so is Christ's warning -"man does not live on bread alone". And the second temptation to pride (arrogance/boasting)! - the "I will not serve" of the rebellious, still merits the response given by Christ - "You must worship the Lord Your God and serve him alone." And, finally the third temptation to power (ambition/fame), probably the most insidious temptation of all, as someone has observed - 'power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.' Hence Christ's advice - "Do not put the Lord your God to the test!" remains valid for those who would climb the ladder of ambition.
And finally, before we leave today’s Gospel, let us not overlook its final sentence: “When the devil had finished every temptation, he departed from him for a time.” According to St. Matthew, Jesus had only three temptations and that was the end of it; but according to St. Luke, the battle with evil was not over for Jesus. It would occur again and again at various stages in his life, right up to and especially at those last hours in the garden and on the Cross. For us, too, the battle against evil never stops. Even if we are successful in fending off temptation, we cannot rest on our laurels, because the devil is ever waiting and constantly looking for an opportunity. We always have to beware and ready!
A story -
A young seminarian, struggling over lustful thoughts and desire, came to his spiritual director and asked, “At what age do you think all these go?” The eighty-year old priest confidently replied, “Eighty, son, at age eighty.” “Eighty?” the seminarian gasped desperately and started to leave. Suddenly, a young voluptuous lady crossed the street and the priest’ eyes were glued to the crossing beauty. Still gazing at the lady, he called back the seminarian and said, “Son, did I say eighty? Well, make that eighty-five.”
To conclude - The story of the temptation of Jesus in the desert is very appropriate as we enter the season of Lent. The Church invites us today to go into the desert ourselves and spend forty days to know the will of God in our lives, to understand the ugly schemes of the devil and to gather spiritual strength through prayer and self-discipline. The desert might be any place or moment where and when we can be by ourselves in silent prayer and reflection. Let us fervently pray to God to bless our Lenten efforts, remembering what St. Paul says to us today - “EVERYONE WHO CALLS ON THE NAME OF THE LORD WILL BE SAVED