“The Lord said to Cain: ‘Why are you so resentful and crestfallen? If you do well, you can hold up your head; but if not, sin is a demon crouching at the door: his urge is toward you, yet you can be his master’” (Genesis 4: 6-7).
This Sunday, we continue our spiritual pilgrimage into the desert, as it were, as the season of Lent began last Wednesday. This weekend’s Gospel concerns Jesus’ triple temptation in the wilderness with Satan himself. Several aspects of our Lord’s victory here are instructive for us throughout our Lenten days.
Immediately after He was baptized in the Jordan River by St. John the Baptist, the Holy Spirit led Jesus into the desert for forty days and nights (Matthew 4: 11). Israel, after having been freed from slavery in Egypt under Pharaoh, himself a symbol of Satan, wandered in the desert forty years. Whereas they failed to trust God the Father, now Jesus, after having been declared the beloved Son of the Father, will do spiritual and temporal battle with Lucifer. Jesus’ first act, in fact, shows us that His mission from the Father is to destroy the powers of darkness, evidenced in sin and death, and to restore life according to God’s design. Whereas the Israelites and even Cain were instructed by God that sin does not have to gain mastery over us if our will is united to God, they failed to use their free will and reason in the way that God intended: in trust and fidelity to Him, who promised always to take care of His people.
In Lent, we emphasize three aspects of bodily holiness that ought to mirror our interior conversion to God: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Jesus Himself lived these three aspects in the desert. He spent forty days in silence and solitude in prayer with His Father. Likewise, it is impossible to follow God’s voice in our own life unless we surrender in solitude and silence before the Lord Himself. We are most blessed in our parish with a twenty-four hour Adoration Chapel for this. God’s voice is so often drowned out in the noise and busyness of our daily lives. We can forget about Him altogether unless we make a specific, concerted effort to carve out time—our most precious commodity—and dedicate those minutes to God Himself. The old adage still holds true: If you are too busy for God, then you’re too busy.
While He was in the desert forty days, Jesus fasted. Why do we fast from food or activities that we normally engage in within our daily life? Some people even make a dedicated and noble effort to fast from the things that they know they should avoid because they are not good for them (like gossip, surfing the internet to waste time, playing video games, etc.). We normally fast not because the things we abstain from are bad or evil in and of themselves; we need food, for example. We fast as a reminder that our home is not ultimately of this world. We fast because our fallen human nature desires an insatiable want for comforts and ease. We fast because we know we need to make a definite break from bad habits that have crept into our lives, perhaps subtly. We also fast because we want to imitate our Lord in His life, and He fasted to show us that we can be the master of sin if we follow in His way. By turning away from some things, we can then see more clearly charitable acts that ought to occupy our attention.
Jesus submitted in humility to be tempted by Lucifer, therefore, to show us that evil does not have to master our life. He has conquered everything that Satan presents to us as false goods. The first temptation involved turning stones into bread. The ancient Israelites rebelled against God immediately in the desert because they hated the food there; they wanted to go backwards and return to Egypt because they knew the food and what to expect even though they were slaves. Similarly, people can become used to their sins. They may not want to break from them because, as their thinking often goes, they are used to sinful patterns, and if those changed, what would life then be like? Fear can, indeed, have a crippling effect.
In response to Lucifer’s temptations, we see Jesus gives a very clear and short retort. He does not engage in a long rational discourse with Satan. He does not begin to rationalize any merit that Lucifer might present in his temptation unlike Eve had done. Jesus instead quotes the Law in response to Satan. In other words, Jesus refers back to what God the Father had revealed to the Israelites through Moses. If they had trusted God then, they would not have allowed evil into their midst. But, their rebellion brought great calamities upon the emerging nation repeatedly. Jesus, however, does trust the Father’s words, and by extension, He shows us that we also rely on God because we do “not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4: 4).
The second temptation involves testing God to prove His power and authority; in effect, to prove that God is God. Jesus again responded with a quotation from the Law. It is not our place to put demands and conditions on God. Who are we to say that we will believe in Him if He fulfills a litany of conditions that we provide Him? Our spiritual life with God is not about a laundry list of what we demand that we receive from Him. Unfortunately, many people’s spirituality remains only at this infantile level. At its root, this idea says, “I will choose to believe in God as long as I do not have to encounter the Cross in my life. In fact, He better not allow any crosses in my life.” This attitude has nothing to do with the life of Christ or Christianity whatsoever.
The third temptation involved Jesus worshiping Satan as a god; the Israelites did, in fact, worship false gods throughout their history which brought ruin upon them. Again, Jesus quoted the Law that man only worships his true Creator and God, the Lord. Jesus also commanded Lucifer to leave, and he obeyed. Then, angels came to wait upon Jesus. So it is with us. The demons do not, in the ordinary realm, have power and authority over us as long as we remain true to our baptismal life in Jesus. The sacramental life attaches us to Jesus in a unique way. In fact, we have been marked by an indelible sign on our soul with Baptism and Confirmation with the sign of the Cross, as it were. We belong to the family of the Holy Trinity with all His attending saints and angels to help and guide us along our pilgrim way. We have turned our back on the Prince of Darkness because he is a liar who can only destroy and deceive. Lent is our privileged time of the Church year to recommit our life to continuing conversion to the life of Christ.
Jesus’ almsgiving—His entire life—was given for us. The ultimate sign of Jesus’ alms—not money or food, but His very Blood—would be His surrender on the Cross. He endured torturous agony so we can surrender to something that is not bitter but is sweet: the yoke of Christ. Our lifetime surrender of our heart and will is precisely what brings the life of Jesus Christ into our own every day in a renewed way. May our prayer, fasting, and almsgiving follow the steps of Jesus these forty days so that our Easter morning will truly be one of great rejoicing with our conquering God!
May you have a most blessed and holy week!
Fr. Shawn William Cutler