As I have pointed out many times before, there is a basic difference between faith and religion. In a nutshell: people of religion spend their life looking for a Deity who is convenient and who can grant them what they request of him according to their plans. People of faith, on the other hand, find reassurance in the knowledge, at gut level, that there is a God enveloped in mystery, who calls them to undertake a journey to an unknown destination that requires giving up their personal plans to embrace His with total abandonment into His hands.
Well, those among us who are people of religion, every first Sunday of Lent might experience a tremendous, existential disappointment due to God’s intentional elusiveness. However, those among us who are people of faith are urged by the readings themselves to continue their journey trusting in this God who cannot be swayed or controlled or manipulated by us.
The key to understanding our readings (Gen 2:7-9, 3:1-7; Rom 5:12-19; Mt 4:1-11) for the First Sunday in Lent lies in these powerful words:
Just as through the disobedience of the one man (Adam) the many were made sinners, so, through the obedience of the one (Jesus Christ), the many will be made righteous.
The temptations, for Jesus and for us, consist in attempting to get him and us to resist acceptance of the very nature of God and to refuse to be docile to His plan of salvation. On the other hand, overcoming temptation results in obedience to God’s law, adherence to His plan to bring about our salvation and complete acceptance of His real nature.
Very surprisingly, very shockingly, as soon as Jesus, God made flesh, is anointed by the Holy Spirit, he is led by the same Spirit into the desert to be tested by Satan. This is extremely significant: unless the Incarnation (the taking on human flesh of our God), is a sick farce, a supernatural magical trick, Jesus has to plunge into the abyss of human frailty and be tested by the devil just as we, his brothers and sisters, are.
Our daily inner struggles, our trials, our tests of fidelity to the Lord must be first experienced by him.
… therefore, he had to become like his brothers (and sisters) in every way, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest before God to expiate the sins of the people. Because he himself was tested through what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested. (Hebrews 2:17-18)
Some of Jesus’ brothers and sisters echo the devil’s refrain:“If you are the Son of God…. you ought to prove it to us. Remove all ambiguity, dazzle us with a miracle (preferably) of our choosing so that we may really believe in you and obey your commandments.”
Isn’t it exactly what some pious people demand of God at times? They itch for miracles, at least every time they feel the burden of the Gospel’s challenges or they realize their powerlessness. Some wonder: Is there truly a God with all the hungry people on this sorry planet of ours? With all the things that go wrong? And, along the same line of reasoning: is there truly a God with so much violence, and injustice, and oppression, and exploitation, and the suffering of innocent children and of good people?
Well, my dear friends in Christ, no matter how much we pray for the most pressing intentions we can think of; no matter how much we implore the Lord to fix things up; there will be no miracle capable of removing all ambiguity about His very existence and His care. The Lord seems to insist on letting a lot of things be still imperfect, many problems still unresolved and with too many stones still all around us. He simply provides us all with two types of bread: the Bread of His Word and the Bread of the Eucharist.
Take Him or leave Him on those terms, His terms!
The second temptation: what is safer than God’s Temple? What is safer and heartwarming than our church with the Blessed Sacrament and our wonderful, inspiring liturgies? How can we possibly be saddled with an unbearable cross, with cruel trials, with horrifying illnesses when we have been imploring His protection and blessings in our beloved church and in all our frequent, anguished prayers?
Consequently, if we are not experiencing His presence, His protection, His favors, wouldn’t we be entitled to put Him to the test, i.e., to question if He is really with us or not? What would we benefit from being Catholics in good standing and doing all the nice things that we do, if the Lord does not deliver what we ask for?
Well, here comes a second disappointment: God is not at our beck and call. He cannot be controlled, swayed, used for achieving our ends. His will cannot be bent to our will, ever! On our own, we have absolutely no leverage whatsoever to get Him to do what we want Him to do for us.
Take Him or leave Him on those terms, His terms!
The third temptation is all in the mind. Jesus and we are shown the perfect world as the glibbest politicians would keep promising us. It is purported as the world of justice, peace, brotherhood, global cooperation, social responsibility and accountability in which everything bad is eliminated and everything good is made available to everyone. It is the perfect planet earth made up of all the best which the kingdoms of this world can offer.
Surprise! It is the kingdom of Satan that will never materialize because it is without obedience to the Father, without high personal cost, without self-sacrifice, without grace, without our God nailed to a shameful cross, and also without His victory over our worst enemy, death. Thus, it is a world without heaven.
Are we disappointed in this God? Or can we live on His terms? Do we believe in Him, trust Him, surrender to Him or shall we look for a more convenient one?
These temptations are ongoing…