On the first Sunday of Lent we turn to the account of Jesus’ temptations in the desert. The first line of the Gospel says, “At that time Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights and afterwards he was hungry.” We read this passage at the beginning of Lent because the forty days of Jesus in the desert are the reason why Lent lasts for forty days. As he fasted, we fast. The symbolism here goes deeper. The “forty days” are not just forty days; they represent the whole span of our life in this world. The “desert” is not only a desert; it is also a symbol of the world itself as a place of temptation. In the desert, there is the tempter, Satan, who is not a symbol. He is a real angel, a fallen angel, who actively and persistently opposes Jesus and all his followers.
Why did the Spirit lead Jesus into the desert? “To be tempted by the devil.” He was in the desert for this very reason, to be tempted and to overcome temptation – and to show us how to overcome temptation. Jesus went there to gain victory over Satan, and to show us how to share in his victory. Everyone is tempted, including Jesus, but not everyone is victorious over temptation. Temptation, we must recall, is not sin; it is an invitation to sin. It is an invitation to consider what appears to us to be a better option. At the core of every temptation is a lie because Satan is a liar. He even lies to Jesus!
The reading from Genesis gives us precious insight into the pattern of temptation. It is the story of the first temptation, experienced by the first man and woman in the garden of Eden. The tempter, symbolized by a serpent, begins by asking the woman a question: “Did God really tell you not to eat from any of the trees in the garden?” It is not an outright lie but a suggestion, a clever way of planting doubt in the mind of the woman. He is trying to make it look like God is withholding something good, and that he is therefore not trustworthy. Once the tempter draws the woman into conversation, then he proposes his lie: “You certainly will not die! No, God knows well that the moment you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods who know what is good and what is evil.” Here is the temptation: this action will be good for you, even though God said otherwise.
Satan does this to us all the time, and we often fall for it. He invites us to doubt God’s goodness and truth. He suggests to us that what is evil is, in fact, good. He presents himself as the one telling the truth. This is the devil’s unchanging modus operandi. He presents something evil, but makes it look good. Reflection on our own experience of sin exposes the lie. We need only ask ourselves, “Was that sin good for me? Did it make me happy?” If we are honest, we know that sin never fulfills the promise that Satan attaches to it. Perhaps for a moment we have enjoyment, but it is short lived, and in the end we are worse off than before we believed the lie.
In the Gospel, Jesus shows us that we do not have to fall for temptation; we do not have to sin. He shows us how to overcome temptation and win in the contest against Satan. The first step is not to welcome Satan’s lies, so that they cannot enter our imagination. Jesus does not accept the lies; he immediately counters them with the truth of God’s word. In this week’s Spiritual Reflection, Pope Francis explains this: “We must never dialogue with the devil. Jesus does two things with the devil: he either sends him away or, like in this case, he responds with the Word of God. Be attentive to this: never dialogue with temptation, never dialogue with the devil.”
To each of the temptations, Jesus responds with a Scripture passage. First, to the suggestion that he should command stones to become loaves of bread, he says, “One does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.” This is a powerful truth for us to hold on to, especially when we feel tempted by materialism, or by cravings to satisfy a physical appetite. When we are longing for physical things, it is often a sign that we are spiritually hungry, starving for the word of God. Lent is a good time to feed daily from the Scriptures. The daily Mass readings during Lent are rich food for our spiritual life. By filling ourselves with the truth of God’s word, we gain strength to overcome our cravings for material things.
The second Scripture Jesus quotes to Satan is, “You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.” With this answer he is saying that he is not going to give the devil’s suggestion another thought. This is the proper way to respond when we are tempted: a firm decision not even to consider what is wrong. Why should we turn away from what we know is true about God and step onto a path that is false? Temptation is an invitation, and the correct answer to this invitation is “No!”
The third response of Jesus is, “The Lord, your God, shall you worship and him alone shall you serve.” This answer defeats the devil’s invitation to worship him. This must be our answer as well. We belong to God; we worship and serve him alone. The door is shut on all false gods and all their empty works and all their empty promises. When we call upon the Name of Jesus and hold firmly on to the truth, the devil finds himself powerless; he must simply leave empty-handed. Satan can enter only when we open the door, when we begin to dialogue with him.
In the second reading, St. Paul expands on the topic of victory over sin and death. Death reigned over the human family because of the transgression of one man, Adam. But by “the grace of God and the gracious gift of one man” – Jesus Christ, the New Adam – we received acquittal and life. Jesus overcame disobedience, the weapon of the devil, by a much greater obedience. He overcame death by the power of his own death on the Cross. And in the abundance of his gift, he enables us to reign with him forever! “For if, by the transgression of the one, death came to reign through that one, how much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of justification come to reign in life through the one Jesus Christ.”
In Jesus, who overcame the enemy, we have victory! Jesus has entered the desert of our sin condition and engaged Satan in battle, easily overcoming him. Jesus is with us throughout the “forty days” of our lives. In the power of his Spirit, he enables us to overcome every temptation, every time, on every level. If we trust in him, hold on to his word, and rely on his power, he will bring about his victory in us. This is the Church’s message for us as we begin the Holy Season of Lent.
How can I follow Jesus’ example of fasting in the desert? When was I trapped by the lies of the devil and felt worse off than before? In what ways will I implore the Spirit to guide me through the desert of life this Lent?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 19, no. 3. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.