Temptation of Christ on the Mount, Duccio, The Frick Collection, New York City, USA.
The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” Luke 4:3.
Our brothers and sisters in the eastern Orthodox Christian church call this season Great and Holy Lent or The Great 40 Days, the most important fasting season in both the eastern and western Christian churches. It is the solemn season preparing us for the central and most important event in the Christian Church, the celebration of Jesus’ conquest of death, his Resurrection. Without that crucial event, there would be no Christian church at all; it is the essential climax, focal point, the heart of our belief. Hence a significant period of time is devoted in preparing for the annual re-enactment of this cynosure of our belief. Essentially Lent is a time for us to enter into ourselves, reflect on what we find there, judge whether it is something we would be happy to present to Our Lord, or not, and if not, what we are going to do about it? Considering what Jesus suffered to ensure his teaching and example for us was to be remembered, what response on our part would be appropriate and acceptable to the Lord? The word Lent comes from an old English word for Spring, when the countryside’s deathly still of winter begins to reawaken with life. That idea should be applied to our inner selves, to our souls.
Jesus’ entrance into the wilderness, described in today’s gospel, came immediately after his baptism in the Jordan by John. Luke says he was driven there by God’s Holy Spirit herself. So this was clearly an important step in Jesus’ newly received identity as Son of God and vocation to be the Messiah. He had to figure out what those terms meant. Who exactly was he? What exactly did God want of him? What consequences follow? In the silence and solitude of the wilderness, amid severe temptations, Jesus searched his soul, reflected on holy Scripture (which for him, of course, meant what we call the Old Testament) and came to conclusions on what he should now do with his life, his baptism having revealed his identity and vocation. This must have been quite a challenge for a jobbing carpenter raised in a small town far removed from Jerusalem, the center of Jewish faith both then and now. How on earth could the long-awaited Messiah who was also God’s Son, possibly come from Nazareth? The revelation must have been overwhelming, hence the need for distance, time and reflective silence; all that the wilderness offered.
The Judean Desert, East of the Dead Sea, South-East of the River Jordan, South-West of Jerusalem; Oasis of En Gedi in the Judean Desert.
The Devil’s temptations, of course, hinged on those revelations. YOU: the Son of God! Prove it! Go ahead, do something miraculous. I don’t believe any of it…. Such thoughts must have been Jesus’ own reflections, but he had experienced his baptism and what had happened there. Was he going to put God to the test to prove what he had heard and experienced? Just one little miracle to demonstrate divine power for my own sake….. Prisoners of war recount that hunger easily became the dominant reality of daily life. You could think, feel, be aware of nothing else. Today’s gospel tells us Jesus ate nothing for the 40 days, so the temptation to change a stone into bread would have been almost overwhelming, especially with the realization that he had the power of God to do just that. But he did not. His chose to accept the reality of his baptism and its revelations at face value. He would not put God to the test. Then there was the reality of his vocation as Messiah, the great anointed savior of the Hebrew people, long awaited and, in the popular mind, the deliverer from Roman, Gentile bondage forever, as Scripture seemed to have prophesied. That too was food for thought, but was it a true picture of God’s long promised Savior? Didn’t Scripture also say that the long-awaited innocent one had to suffer for no good reason? Given all that, 40 days in the desert doesn’t seem that long, but to Jesus it must have been quite the opposite. So Lent is upon us, and it is up to us to undergo re-examination as a true follower of the Lord.