In today’s Gospel we read about Jesus’ forty-day temptation in the desert, where the Holy Spirit led him to do battle with the devil. There are many references in the Bible to periods of testing and trial that last for forty days or forty years. The great flood in the days of Noah lasted forty days and forty nights. The prophet Elijah’s journey to Mt. Horeb as he fled from King Ahab and Jezebel took forty days and forty nights. The Israelites were tested in the desert for forty years before they could enter the Promised land. In all these examples, the number forty indicates a time of radical dependence on God, a time of trial in which one learns the way of abandonment to God’s will.
Jesus, “filled with the Holy Spirit” after being baptized by John, does not need forty days, for he is already perfectly united with the will of the Father. His time in the desert is for our sake, both to teach us by example and to give us his strength by conquering our spiritual enemy the devil. Jesus exposes the devil’s strategy, that is, temptation. Three temptations are mentioned, but these represent an unending series. The devil keeps trying to defeat Jesus but finds himself defeated. His sole interest is to get Jesus to do something, anything, outside the will of the Father. Jesus shows that while he is subject to temptation, just as we are, every temptation can be overcome.
In our spiritual journey of the next forty days, we join Jesus in the desert. The Spirit will lead us, if we are willing to follow, into our hearts, where we face many temptations. The Lord wants us to know that sin makes our interior life into a barren wilderness. On the other hand, when we rely on him, we have all that we need – enough to persevere in the face of our own weakness and even to overcome foes that are far stronger than we are. We pray with the confidence expressed in today’s psalm: “Be with me, Lord, when I am in trouble.” We can be sure that the Lord will be faithful to us as he was to his Chosen One, for we also are his chosen ones by Baptism.
When do we more easily fall into temptation? Typically, when in our spiritual hunger we look to material things to fill us; or, when in our pride we look for ways to justify or glorify ourselves; or, when in our fear we look for security in things we can control. Jesus shows that temptations can be resisted through the power of the word of God. In each of the devil’s temptations, Jesus rebukes him with a quote from the Scriptures.
In the second reading, St. Paul stresses the importance of the word in our life. “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart – that is, the word of faith that we preach.” During Lent the Church invites us to make an extra effort to meditate on the word of God, especially the daily Scripture readings of the Mass. This is part of our spiritual training program. When the word is planted in our hearts, it fortifies us against temptation and deepens our faith. It teaches us that following Jesus is not a matter of pride or presumption but of reliance on his saving power. “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
We should not get disheartened about the prospect of the spiritual battles we face. The Lord who is victorious over Satan makes his victory available to us. We can look forward to future victories because this is the will of God. Today’s first reading takes us to the hope-filled instruction that Moses gave the Israelites when they were on the verge of entering finally into the Promised Land. After forty years of wandering in the desert – and we know they were not easy years – they entered into a “land flowing with milk and honey.” As we journey through these forty days of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, we keep our eyes on the goal of Easter. We know that the Lord has already won for us the ultimate victory over temptation, sin and death. The desert journey of Lent leads both to the bitter experience of the Passion and to the joyous celebration of the Resurrection.
What are the temptations that I face on my spiritual journey? How can I consistently rely upon the Lord so I may persevere each day? Do I take time to meditate on the word of God who deepens my faith?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 15, no. 3. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.