Jesus was led by the Spirit out into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.
Today, at the beginning of her own 40 days of lenten observance, the eyes of the whole Church are fixed on Jesus, tempted by the devil in the wilderness. Jesus is preparing himself for his active ministry, and ultimately for his sacrificial death on the Cross. And his Church is preparing herself once more to celebrateat Easter the saving mystery of her redemption. So, with Jesus, for 40 days, the whole Church now gives herself to fasting, to self discipline, to spiritual exercises, and to active works of charity. In the words of St. Benedict, she strives during these days to keep her manner of life most pure, and to wash away in this holy season the negligences of other times (HR 49).
It’s both consoling and important for us to know that Jesus was tempted, and that he resisted his temptations. Although free from sin, Jesus shared our human nature fully. Now, fasting in the desert, he is sharply confronted with the reality and vulnerability of his human weakness. The devil, watching closely, sees his opportunity, and strikes. His aim, by any means at all, is to turn Jesus aside from his chosen pathway of humility and obedience; of suffering, death and resurrection. Jesus sees, with clear and open eyes, what following this pathway must cost him. He understands also his radical ability to avoid it. Yet, unlike Adam his ancestor, Jesus defeats the tempter, and he does do as man, in a human way, using only the weapons that are at hand also for us.
If you are the Son of God, says Satan, tell these stones to turn into loaves.
If you are the Son of God? But 2 or 3 verses before this, in St. Matthew’s Gospel, we have read the witness of God the Father, corroborated by the sign of the Holy Spirit: This is my Beloved Son, my favour rests on him. So Jesus knows, Satan knows, and we know perfectly well that Jesus is indeed God’s Son. The trouble is: the world doesn’t know this. Can the world really be expected to come to Jesus, when all it sees is his human ordinariness, his mortal weakness, his humility? Let Jesus then prove who he is, beyond any doubt, by using his divine power. Let him produce food by miracle, just as God did for the Israelites in the desert, in the time of Moses. And so let him pervert his mission, which is not to be served, but to serve, and to give up his life as a ransom for us (20:28).
Jesus rejects this, and the temptations that follow, with a text from Deuteronomy. And as he does so, he offers us a living commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, which follows in the next Chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel. We see Jesus here in the desert, pure in heart, hungry and thirsty for righteousness, persecuted by the devil. He quotes the Old Testament Scriptures, for he came not to abolish but to fulfil. He proves his divine Sonship, and his right to inherit the Kingdom, not by exerting power, but by his poverty of spirit, his gentleness, his choice of the ways of peace. Jesus here refuses to be anxious about what he shall eat, or what he shall drink. He takes no thought for the morrow. He seeks first the Kingdom, and its righteousness, trusting that all these other things will be added. And he lives out the prayer he taught us: lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
If you are the Son of God, says Satan, throw yourself down.
Having failed to persuade Jesus to act independently of God’s Providence, Satan now suggests he presume upon it. Of course the suggestion sounds rather plausible. Jesus is to go to the Temple, where God dwells, and where all the pious Jews are assembled in worship. He is to trust God completely, and to put all his faith in a text of holy Scripture, which Satan is happy to quote. And in his response Jesus teaches us how we are most truly to trust in God, who is indeed always with us, and who does indeed send his holy Angels to watch over our every step. But the concern of the Angels for us is above all spiritual. They want to bring us securely to heaven. They want us to become ever more Christ-like. They want us, they help us, to trust in God even amid darkness and difficulties, amid pain and distress; even when we cannot see our way, or understand what is happening to us.
The final temptation is the most blatant. Fall at my feet and worship me. Here Satan overplays his hand. The mask has now slipped, to expose the false promises, the empty lies, the naked pride and rebellion against God. In response Jesus seems to lose patience. Against the fallen Angel of light, he now applies the fly swat. Be off, Satan!
And Satan goes: for now. He will return, though, with a final temptation, or test. By divine permission, Satan will then do his utmost against Jesus. He will load him with hatred and insults, lacerate his flesh with scourges, and pierce it with nails. He will humiliate him with thorns, and hang him up for public shame, for death and final defeat. Yet Satan will be the one there finally defeated. Jesus will be shown finally as much stronger than him. He will meet his Passion with patience, forgiveness, unwavering love: love for his Father, and love for us. And he will show there that our dignity, our happiness, our treasure does not lie in power or possessions or worldly pleasures or success; that it is certainly not to be attained by acts of blasphemy, and self-enslavement to the devil. No: our supreme blessing is to be able to worship God; to share in the Sonship of Jesus; to pass with him through death to eternal life.
Today the Church gravely warns us, and reminds us, that the devil exists, that he is our enemy, and that he does not sleep. Sometimes he leaves us more or less alone; sometimes he ferociously assaults us. Sometimes with great subtlety he invites us to commit minor infidelities. Sometimes more openly he urges us to complete betrayal. But we never have to consent. On our own we are weak and liable to fall. But we are never alone. We stand in the power of the Holy Spirit, and of Jesus, who never ceases to feed us with his word, and with himself. And in any case of necessity, he will send his holy Angels to defend us, to care for all our needs, and to lead us, unfailingly, to our heavenly homeland.