From the Gospel for the First Sunday in Lent: “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.”
We never have to think too hard about what the gospel for the Mass of the First Sunday of Lent will be. It is always the same: the three temptations of Christ. The Baptism of Christ begins his ministry, and it begins by his obedience to the Father to be baptized by John in the Jordan river. And in this act of obedience the heavens open and the Spirit appears above his head and the Father’s voice is heard from heaven identifying Jesus as his Son. And now in obedience to the Spirit Jesus goes into the desert to fast and pray for forty days, that number recalling Jewish salvation history in the persons of Noah, Moses and the Israelite people wandering in the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land. It is true that this is a preparation for his ministry, but the heart of this preparation is to speak to his Father in prayer in the barren silence of the desert, the Son communing with the Father, the Word communing with the Source. This period of fasting and prayer comes to an end with his being tempted by Satan, that confrontation that is inevitable, for it is the confrontation with the world that is dominated by the "Lord of the World", who exults in the fall of man and his predicament of bondage to sin.
That is the theological and historical context of this gospel passage. But what of the context in which the gospel is heard by us today and by all Catholics throughout the world? It is quite important that we understand the context of the hearer of the Word as well as the context of the Word that is proclaimed. I do not know what to call the man of today, what the descriptive adjective for man is as he lives in this world in 2014. We talk about ancient man, medieval man, modern man and post-modern man. Someone chastised me recently for thinking that man is still in his post-modern phase. Alas! There is so much that I have missed and misjudged. But whatever we call man today, it is obvious that man today thinks that he is autonomous, a law unto himself. Whereas medieval man believed he could rule over the world, he at least saw this as a gift from God. Whatever one thinks of the divine right of kings, at least it was believed to come from God. Today’s man believes as well that he has sovereignty over the world, but he believes that this is so simply because this is his right. This is what he is meant to do, and the source of that meaning is himself.
There was a time when we spoke of Providence as God’s gracious care for us. No longer does man look to God for providing what is necessary. That now falls to governments. It is now the job of government to plan for its people, to plan what is good for them in all areas of their lives so that they have nothing to worry about. The judgment of good and evil and the establishment of moral values was believed to be, in the words of Romano Guardini, “the prerogatives of the Supreme Being”. But this is no longer the case, for we live in a world in which moral values and moral judgments are made without any reference to God or to any objective standards but instead are handed down by judges or government officials or world organizations, all of which believe that it is man who must decide these things on his own, and that decision is based on an ever changing view of right and wrong that ultimately depends on what most people seem to want. And finally, despite Pope Francis’ references to the Devil, most people, and this includes many Catholics, have abandoned belief in a personal power of evil that works for the spiritual destruction of man.
So that is the context in which Catholics hear this gospel passage today. And let us not fool ourselves: most Catholics have no problem practicing their faith and at the same time believing that God has nothing to do with contemporary moral problems. Many of them have no problem accepting the decisions made by those who are empowered to do such things in this culture, decisions that go contrary to God’s law and the teaching of the Church. So what do Catholics in this context hear or think about when they hear this gospel on the First Sunday in Lent? Some don’t think about it at all and hope the priest will just get on with the Mass. Some accept it as part of what one does and hears on this Sunday, part of the Catholic scenery. Some wonder, and I think this is the majority, what this can possibly have to do with them.
Satan attacks Jesus with the first temptation at the end of his long fast, challenging him to use the power of God to change stones into bread to allay his hunger. When the Word of God became man, he was without sin, but he took on our weakness, our human weakness, our frailty that comes from our bodily nature. His body cried out for food after the long fast and the Devil sneaked up at this point of weakness. And he challenged the Word made flesh, through whom all things were made, to turn the stones of the desert into bread to feed himself and allay his hunger. And notice the words he uses: “If you are the Son of God, command that these stones turn into bread.” “If you are,” not “if you were” in the subjunctive, but using the challenge of the indicative here. And he goes on: “command that these stones be turned into bread”. Here Satan mocks God’s words at the creation: And God said: "Let there be light." And it is only the Word made flesh who could answer: "Man does not live by bread alone." And he could answer this only because he had spent forty days communing with his Father, eating the presence of God in the solitude of prayer in the silence of the desert.
But what can all this mean to a man who has forgotten the relationship between Providence and God? Or to a man whose very self defines what the morality of an act is? Don’t we say to ourselves: "I know, I know, this is about spiritual things versus material things. But what harm in the end would it have been if Jesus had turned the stones into bread and ate that bread. After forty days--, come on, would God care?" Or to a man for whom the essence of things is not important, in a world where a neutron becomes an electron and a proton, and in a world where a man can become a woman, or a woman can become a man, if this is what he or she wants, by the magic of surgery? What would it matter if the Lord of creation did not respect the stone for being a stone, did not respect the “stoneness” of a stone, and refused the temptation to deny its reality by changing it into bread by some sort of cheap magic? Finally, what does this mean to a man who identifies radical change as a sign of real progress, exulting in change, reveling in the inevitable journey to the omega point of infinite change?
The second temptation: the Devil whisks Jesus to the top of the Temple in Jerusalem. He brings him to the top of his Father’s house, the place of the presence of God in the Holy of Holies. And again he starts: "If you are the Son of God", again the use of the indicative showing that Satan knew Jesus was the Son of God: “Hurl yourself off this pinnacle and your angels will rush to rescue you”. Saying this, Satan uses Scripture itself to taunt Jesus. And Jesus’ words of refusal to this temptation are also scriptural: "You shall not put the Lord your God to a test." To demand a miracle to test God’ s power is a denial of his Providence, of his love for us. And it is a denial of what faith means, faith in God to do what we want or to not do what we want: all because he cares for us and loves us. What does this mean for a man who links truth to empirical evidence; a man who has put his ultimate faith in science for his answers, believing that credence should be given only to something that can be shown to be true by empirical means? What does this mean for a man who is excited by the thrill of dangerous games, excited by seeing how much he can get away with and who thinks he is too smart to be caught? What does this mean for a man who lives his life on the edge and is blind to the abyss that yawns before him?
The third temptation: Satan brings Jesus to a very high mountain and shows him all of the kingdoms of the world, the world of power and earthly glory, the world of success driven by selfishness and greed, the world over whom Satan is king. And Satan looks down on this world and relishes his authority over this world. We can see him smiling with pride. He knows what power is because he has it. And he says to Jesus: “ I will give you all of this if you bow down to worship me.” The ultimate temptation. Ultimate because it is the temptation for Jesus to forget who he is: the one who emptied himself of his Godhead to take on the weakness of mortal flesh so that he could empty himself out totally by dying a shameful death to break the power of Satan over mankind. And here we cannot know what went on in Jesus’ mind, his heart, his soul, as he was confronted with the temptation to forget what his mission was and therefore who he is. And remember that the temptation was real. These temptations of Christ are not some sort of play -acting by God pretending to be man, as if his body, his humanity, were a mere costume thrown over his divinity. It had to be real, involving human weakness, or it means nothing. The ultimate temptation: for God to deny himself. Jesus’ answer: "You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.” The fundamental definition of God: He who alone is to be worshipped: worship at the heart of man’s relationship to God.
What can this mean to a man whose view of his relationship to the world is to amass as much money and goods as he can in his life, whose single purpose on earth is to make money out of money, simply to have it? What can this mean to a man who confuses power with authority, who uses his power to try to gain authority, not understanding that authority is something that comes from how he lives his life and not from his office? What can this mean for a man who no longer understands what the worship of God is and why He should be worshipped? And here we speak not only about the man who claims that he can worship God in the woods or on the golf course. But we speak also about the contemporary Catholic for whom worship of the community is indistinguishable from worship of God, where the totally otherness of God, the absolute transcendence of the God who became flesh and who chooses to be immanent in the Sacrifice of the Mass and Holy Communion is absent: where the objectivity of ritual that makes present the Real and the Holy, sanctified by two millennia, is set aside and in its place are flailing and futile attempts to make God “happen” by “planning liturgies”, where the priest and people stare and talk at each other, where in despair it is said that man today is incapable of worship?
What we must do, you and I, is to work hard, and it is work, it is labor, to make sure as much as possible that we do not hear the words of the Gospel through the filters of an age that essentially denies the reality of God in all practical ways and at best relegates him to what some people do on Sunday morning. And how do we do this? We can start in this Lent by doing what Tradition tells us to do: fast, pray harder and give alms. That is, we can practice denying our body what it naturally wants and gain that self-control that can come only from the denial of what is naturally good for us. It is a very good way to remind ourselves that man does not live on bread alone. We can protect ourselves from the confusion of a world that refuses to know truth by increasing our time spent in prayer, for prayer is contact with God, is talking to God, and if we do not talk to him often and deeply, how can we ever know Him, and if we do not know Him who is Truth, how can we distinguish what is true and what is false in this world? And alms-giving, an old fashioned word. What this means is giving of ourselves to others, acts of charity, acts of kindness especially when it is difficult to do this. For if we do not forget ourselves by attending to the needs and wants of others, how can we overcome that selfishness, that self-centeredness that is the source of the power that the Father of Lies has over us?
May we all keep a strenuous, vigorous, and holy Lent.
Father Richard G. Cipolla