In order to appreciate and benefit from what the Church offers to our consideration every first Sunday of Lent there are several facets of the narrative of the temptations of Jesus in the desert that we have to keep before our eyes.
We have to see Jesus as the Head of the new Israel (all of us), put to the test by the Father in a way similar to his testing Israel of old in the desert of Sinai for forty years. The Father’s modus operandi in his plan of salvation has not changed over the millennia. It is always driven by his Spirit of love. All creatures, including the devil, operate within that plan. The devil is simply one of God’s creatures, powerful, extremely scary and most rebellious but in no way equal to God. Also the symbolism in this narrative cannot be overlooked. Paying attention to the symbolism, we glean a considerable amount of knowledge that can enlighten our path during the Lenten journey to Easter.
Right away we might be shocked that it is the Spirit that leads Jesus and all of us into the desert to be tempted by the devil.
The Holy Spirit leads us into the desert because it is the place where life is reduced to its essentials, to whatever is deemed indispensable in dire circumstances. This is true of all kinds of “deserts” in which we might find ourselves. Besides the deserts of stones and sand, there are the deserts of loneliness and doubt, of mental, spiritual, emotional aridity, of prolonged sickness, of mounting frustration and many others. In our “desert” we are forced to come face to face with ourselves and quickly prioritize our needs. Oftentimes there is nobody else to rely on. Either we make it on our own with limited support from other frail human beings or we must trust in God. And if we place our trust in the Father, we must accept his terms and adhere to his ways of doing things.
Lent is designed as the time in which, enlightened and inspired by God’s word, we learn to trust in the Father; to find our safety and security in him and, in the process, we learn to wean ourselves from all other ways of finding security and safety elsewhere. Even whenever we are fortunate enough to be assisted lovingly, in our “desert,” by those who truly care for us, we should remain mindful of their frailty…
Thus says the LORD: Cursed is the man who trusts in human beings, who seeks his strength in flesh, whose heart turns away from the LORD. (Jeremiah 17:5)
Ultimately, our trust must be in God alone. Jesus teaches by example that temptations are withstood with reliance on God’s word until, eventually, we reach the profound conviction that God is truly everything for us. Then, it should not surprise us that it is God who puts us to the test directly or indirectly through some of his creatures.
In the book of Genesis, before any desert can overtake parts of God’s garden, he puts Adam and Eve to the test, to see the quality of their obedience and trust in him. He does it indirectly, by employing the slyness of one of his creatures, the serpent (symbol of the devil). The serpent lies in order to make the prospect of becoming independent of God and self-relying, as most appealing, as the preferable thing to do. We read: The woman saw that the tree was good for food, pleasing to the eye, and desirable for gaining wisdom.
In the Book of Job, the Lord God allows Satan to test Job to the limits of endurance. We learn that even after the most grueling tests, in the cruelest of deserts, Job still places all his trust in and reliance on God.
The most outstanding success story might be the one of Abraham: The Lord puts him to the most heart-wrenching test by asking him to sacrifice his only son Isaac. Yet, even in such an impenetrable darkness, Abraham trusts in the Lord: he is certain that the Lord will provide a suitable way out of a seemingly endless desert. For 40 years, the Lord led his people through the desert, testing, time and time again, if they were truly convinced to trust him in the most crucial and vital moments of the journey; whenever it was a question of life or death. As we know, they failed miserably and repeatedly.
The narrative of the temptations endured by Christ is before us at the beginning of each Lenten journey, because the Church knows well, by direct experience, the Father’s love for us even as he tests us and, at the same time, she knows the extent of our human frailty.
Therefore, whoever thinks he is standing secure should take care not to fall. No trial has come to you but what is human. God is faithful and will not let you be tried beyond your strength; but with the trial he will also provide a way out, so that you may be able to bear it. (1 Corinthians 10:12-13)
Prompted by the Spirit of love, the Lord puts us to the test in order to see if we adopt his way over the reasonable ways of the world. Saintly people warn us that since we are already disciples of Jesus, very seldom are we tempted by the devil to do something bad. That is reserved for those who are spiritually dead or decaying. Most of the temptations are about doing something better than good.
Indeed, often we prefer to keep looking for that elusive easy, solution to the most difficult problems afflicting our world; problems like hunger, dreadful diseases, poverty and violence. And, wouldn’t it be convenient and cost-efficient to dazzle people into submission by forcing in their minds all tenets of the Gospel?
But, nowadays too, Jesus’ response is: You shall not put the Lord your God to the test. No one who has experienced the extent the Father’s love would put him to the test by demanding a display of love bigger than the sacrifice of his Son on the cross. Here lies the hidden monstrosity of tempting God by expecting something beyond his ongoing, constant outpouring of love.
The test continues: wouldn’t be nice if by a simple compromise: by adopting the ways of Satan’s world, by relying on power, we could accomplish Jesus’ mission in no time? However, unmindful of possible alternatives, Jesus adopts the Father’s way without questioning its validity even if the way chosen by the Father, invariably, is very long, unpolished, hard and tedious.
That way is now, again, proposed as the only valuable one to unreliable, weak, hesitant people such as ourselves. After countless Lenten Seasons it doesn’t take still a whole lot for us to forget the mighty wonders he accomplished applying his improbable way… so we will continue to be tempted.
Up here, in our mind, we know that the Lord’s way is the right one. Yet we keep begging the Lord: Lead us not into temptation. We pray thus because we are still struggling down here, in our heart, with the idea that we are called to follow Christ on a path marked by patience, endurance, tiny steps, insignificant things, humble caring, slow progress. That is not the world’s style. Why should it be ours?
We keep praying: Lead us not into temptation because Jesus is telling us to keep carrying our cross and follow in his footsteps.
We keep praying: Lead us not into temptation, because he is still determined to lead us first to Calvary.
We beg him during this Lenten Season too: Lead us not into temptation, because to trust in him is harder than we thought; because we know that we are sooooo frail; because we want to be convinced that his way is the only one that truly works and that is heading towards Easter for certain.