A Lenten Reflection – Follow Jesus into the Desert
By David Cooley.
Lent is such a powerful time and if we open ourselves up to the graces of God it can be a time of great spiritual enrichment. Lent is so many things, but the Catechism of the Catholic Church offers us a concise reflection: “By the solemn forty days of Lent the Church unites herself each year to the mystery of Jesus in the desert.” (CCC, 540)
The mystery of Jesus in the desert is just that — a mystery — but that doesn’t mean revelation hasn’t given us a lot to ponder while reading over these intriguing passages. What is the desert first of all? More to the point, what is it not? Well, it’s not the Garden of Eden!
If Eden was a walled, beautiful garden where all your needs were met and the chaos of the wilderness was kept at bay, then the desert is its direct opposite. In his book, “Jesus of Nazareth,” Pope Benedict XVI wrote that by going into the desert Jesus descends “into [all] the perils besetting mankind …” (p. 26).
Jesus had gone to the Jordan to be baptized by John in order to enter into solidarity with us sinners. The first thing the Holy Spirit does is lead him into the desert “to be tempted by the devil” (Matt 4:1). What this means is that the Lord subjected himself to all the risks and threats of human existence (cf. Heb 4:15). Ultimately, Jesus came to battle with the forces of evil and so, in the midst of his sojourn, he is met by the prince of evil himself.
But, before we get to the temptations of Christ, it is good to note that the spiritual implications of going to the desert are not all negative. We are meant to follow Jesus wherever he goes and if he goes into the desert, then we should too. Going to a desolate land, for us, means getting rid of all the noise and distractions that often come between us and God. We must rid our lives of clutter, focus on what is truly important, living simply enough so that we can hear God’s voice and find joy. Sin has a lot of negative consequences, and one of the more minor ones is that it complicates everything in our lives and leaves us trying to hide from God. Going into the desert is all about not hiding from what scares us and seeking God. With paradise lost, it is a place of reconciliation and healing.
Oftentimes, when we face temptation it is something that comes from within. Satan had to approach our Lord from the outside and because of this Scripture is able to give us a glimpse of Jesus’ struggle to stand against all the distortions of his mission. Remember that these temptations and the devil himself are with Jesus every step of the way to Calvary. Pope Benedict points out that the story of the temptations is an “anticipation that condenses into a single expression the struggle that he endured at every step of his mission.” (“Jesus of Nazareth,” p. 27)
In his book, “Life of Christ,” Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen calls the temptations of Jesus “three short cuts from the Cross.” It is important to recognize the difference between temptation and sin. Since Jesus had a human nature he had to go through the human experience of withstanding temptation, but being tempted is not the same as giving into temptation. Archbishop Sheen wrote, “The temptations were meant to divert our Lord from his task of salvation through sacrifice. Instead of the Cross as a means of winning souls of men, Satan suggested three short cuts to popularity: an economic one, another based on marvels, and a third, which was political.” (“Life of Christ,” p. 67)
With the first temptation (Matt 4:3), Satan challenges Jesus to turn stones into bread. On the one hand, we can reflect on this as a temptation toward instant physical gratification. The virtue, then, we learn then from Jesus’ response is the importance of self-sacrifice. However, both Pope Benedict XVI and Archbishop Sheen go further with their interpretation and they see is as a temptation for Jesus to become the savior of the world by ending hunger. “If you solve the people’s physical, material needs they will not be able to resist following you.” To this Jesus answers that we have more than physical needs; we have spiritual needs as well (see Matt 4:4; cf. Deut 8:3).
Perhaps the second temptation to “Throw yourself down” and God will save you (Matt 4:6) is a manifestation of self-idolatry, the temptation to see one’s self as more important, better than others. Or, considering Jesus’ response that we should “not put the Lord, your God, to the test” (Matt 4:7; cf Deut 6:16), we can conclude that Jesus is telling us that God is not subject to our authority. We cannot call on him to prove himself by throwing his promises back in his face; we cannot ask him prove his existence by meeting our needs and satisfying our curiosities. God is not simply a magician or a genie waiting on our beck and call. In either case, Jesus shows us the importance of humility — accepting our place in the universe by recognizing that we do not have the mind of God.
Finally, Jesus is offered all the kingdoms of the world if he would just abandon the Father’s will and serve Satan. The third temptation proposes a short cut to glory, a chance to bypass the Cross and go right to kingship. Who can deny that it is so hard for human beings to resist an easy way out instead of following through with what is right? Satan wanted Christ to turn away from pain and suffering and let the kingdom of the world remain under the power of sin and death.
But, Jesus didn’t come to be Lord of the world, an earthly king; he came to redeem humanity. And the only way to do that was to take upon his shoulders sin and death and carry them to Calvary. There is no crown without the Cross. There is no way to get to the resurrection without the crucifixion.
After the Resurrection Christ says, “All authority in heaven and on earth have been given to me” (Matt 28:18). Only someone who has power in heaven has real, saving power. Power in virtue of his Resurrection presupposes the Cross, his death. The earthly kingdoms that Satan was able to put before the Lord will all pass away, but the glory of Christ — the humble, self-sacrificing glory of his love — will never pass away.
The third temptation reminds us that the worship of false idols; the worship of power, politics and the idea that man can create a perfect world without God, is a dangerous proposition that inevitably leads to a tragic downfall. To worship Satan, to serve Satan, means you are a slave to sin. To worship God, to serve God, is true freedom. Jesus, for a third time, quotes Deuteronomy: “You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve” (Matt 4:10; cf. Deut 6:13).
After his 40 days in the desert, when he appeared to be in a weakened state, Satan tried to get Jesus to turn his back on his divine mission. He tried to get him to avoid the Cross and search for “a better way.” Christ is always the model we should follow. Those temptations didn’t make Jesus weaker, they made him stronger. If we follow Jesus into the desert these 40 days of Lent will help us prepare to battle the forces of evil as well.
David Cooley is co-director and office manager of the Office of Catechesis and Evangelization in the Diocese of Covington.