Here we are. That’s right; it’s the first Sunday of Lent. What do we do now? Do we hastily cobble together a plan of attack as to how we’re going to successfully overcome any and all obstacles? Or, are we one of those hearty souls who knew what they were going to do, why, ever since the end of Lent last year? But we are actually more like those who prefer to let someone else do all the heavy lifting. Right? After all, God knows our hearts. He knows we mean well, but this is a modern age, and there’s so much to do and think about, not to mention that nasty Coronavirus that might sneak up on us all, and wipe us out. In the face of all that, how can God really expect us to take Lent that seriously?
Psalm 55, verses 7 & 8 expresses a deeply poignant movement of the heart. It’s so brutally real and endemic to our shared experience, it would break our hearts if we were honest enough to admit it:
I say, “If only I had wings like a dove
that I might fly away and find rest.
Far away I would flee;
I would stay in the desert.”
If only. How many times have you and I muttered that to ourselves after ruminating upon past mistakes? Maybe it’s the lost opportunities of our children, as they continue to misspend their lives apart from God. Perhaps it is we who are the focus, or we should be. Let’s sprout a pair of wings and fly the coop! But where? Read the verse again: “...in the desert.” You want wings? It seems as though we can have them. But look where they are designed to take us! I would suggest that the very place we do not wish to be in our lives is often the same place God wants us to be so we can face the struggles He has designed so we can come out the other side of those adversities. It’s like the old saying, “Bloom where you’re planted.” Wow, I hate that saying, but it’s been proven true, time and again.
Where is your desert?
There are 3 mentions in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’s temptations in the wilderness: Matt.4:1-12, Lk.4:1-13, & Mk. 1:12,13. I must tell you; I absolutely thrill at the way Mark begins his narrative:” At once the Spirit drove him out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan. He was among wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him.” Annnnnd…that’s all folks! Mark doesn’t beat around the bush. He almost ends before he begins. A commentator once wrote that Mark wrote the Gospel as if he were writing a detective story – full of action, short on descriptions. Tradition tells us that St. Peter dictated this version of the Gospel to St. Mark, so we can surmise that it was Peter who was the episodic one. Did you miss it, though? Mark tells us that the Spirit literally “drove” Jesus into the desert. But not as an unwilling gladiator. Let’s not forget that the same Jesus who contested with the Devil for 40 days was the same Jesus who declared in John’s Gospel:
“My food is to do the will of the one who sent me and to finish his work” (John 4:34).
That is the intensity and focus that Christ took into the desert. The Son of God who would successfully traverse the wilderness, fully tested and tried, yet without sin, would be the New Israel of God. Unlike the ancient Israelites who repeatedly failed God, succumbing to their own ways, Jesus overcame the Tempter, and in doing so, created forever a perfect setting (the desert) where He would – in ways we can’t fully comprehend – continue to defeat temptation. Remember: Jesus, as man needed the testing, and if you don’t believe me, read Hebrews 2:18; 4:15. But, and this is vital also, as God he forever overcomes temptation on our behalf. Nothing God does in time is time bound. God in Christ is winning for you and me all the time.
Jesus wants you and me to win, too. It’s hard, and it’s that way, at least in part, because temptation comes at us every day and night, and there’s no rhyme or reason. Some days, we get beat up, and that doesn’t feel good. Before we throw in the towel, however, let’s get some advance info on how to fight back. A favored interpretation of what has come to be known as The Wilderness Temptations (see above for Scripture), has usually been a tripartite scheme, using the passage from 1 John 2:16:
“For all that is in the world, sensual lust, enticement for the eyes, and a pretentious life, is not from the Father but is from the world.“
In other words, the fancy term, “tripartite”, simply means, “3 part”. The 3 parts of the analysis of the Temptation are: 1) Sensual Lust, 2) Enticement For The Eyes, and 3) A Pretentious Life. Let’s look at these more in depth:
Sensual Lust This one leaps right out at us, square in the face. Temptation from this quarter comes from legitimate, God-given desires, but desires that, in the heat of the crucible of testing, overrun their proper boundaries, and before we know it, we’re awash in a sea of our own devising. Satan, knowing Scripture exceedingly well (all you Bible bashers, take note), wanted Jesus to use His Divine prerogative and change stones into bread for His eating. Sounds good, right? Nothing wrong with eating. Jesus, knowing better than to take the Devil’s bait, quoted Scripture right back at him. All ensuing Scripture is from the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 4: “One does not live by bread alone,One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God” (v.4). It is fundamental to successful living that temptation is, most often, a good desire which has been corrupted through suggestion. Who is that, exactly, whispering in your ear?
Enticement For The Eyes You’re familiar with the expression, “Feast your eyes!” Well, Jesus was invited to not so much feast His eyes, but be a feast – a spectacle – for the eyes of others. Satan took Him to what many believe to be Solomon’s Portico, which, in those times rose over the Kidron Valley about 300′, and said, “Go ahead. Jump.” And don’t we all want proof, sometimes that God is really there, that He honestly cares what is happening to us? And so, in the darkness of the recesses of our hearts, we concoct a fevered wish that God grant us a “vision”, or a “sign”. I have to say, it is the mark of a battle ready Catholic who will stand with Jesus and say, “You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test“(v.7).
A Pretentious Life It seems the Devil abides by the 3 strike rule of temptation, for he winds up with trying to dazzle Jesus with a panoramic vision of the kingdoms of the world, saying, “All these I shall give to you, if you will prostrate yourself and worship me (v.9). Please note: Jesus did not dispute the proper ownership of said kingdoms. He knew very well He was dealing with the Ruler of this World. No, He responded with, yet, another riposte from Deuteronomy (All of Christ’s responses to Satan were from Deuteronomy) : “The Lord, your God, shall you worship, and him alone shall you serve” (v.10) Let’s face it; we’re in the wilderness now, the ring, the arena (to borrow from myself) now; we might as well gear up, get ready and fight. Even if it’s a feeble prayer of petition. Satan won’t quit until Jesus returns, and we can’t quit, either. We have help – the Church, Mary & all the Saints, countless resources online, our families, our friends, and did I mention most of all, prayer?
This space is for you to contemplate the breathtaking profundity combined with the effortless humor that has been served up to you.
Where to from here? I am going to share some precious wisdom from none other than St. Gregory Nazianzen (+390), a Doctor of the Church. Use this as a spiritual vitamin whenever you need, and wherever you are. Oh, and about the desert: There’s no flying away; wherever we are, there the desert is. But now we know the One who walked all over the Devil in that same desert. Bottoms up!
I too am made in the image of God,
become an outcast from heaven through
my pride. I have put on Christ by my
baptism. I have become one with Him.
It is you that should fall prostrate