Ductus est Jesus in desertum a Spiritu Sancto ut tentaretur a diabolo.
The Church solemnly launches the Holy season of Lent with the Gospel of Our Lord’s temptation in the desert, taking up where she left off the story of our Redemption which started at Christmas with the birth of Our Lord and went up to His Epiphany on January 6th and then finally to His baptism on the Octave of that feast, where we saw Our Lord definitively leave the hidden life He led for 30 years at Nazareth and begin His public life.
Before, however, beginning His public ministry, which will finally lead him to His Passion and Death in Jerusalem during Holy Week, He is “led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil.” He wants to prepare there, by fasting and prayer, for this public ministry which will culminate in Holy Week and He wants also to take us with Him that we might prepare too for Holy Week by this long vigil of fasting and prayer which is called Lent.
Let us look, then, at just what happened during this temptation of Our Lord in the desert and then try to see what it means concretely for each one of us, particularly with regard to the resolutions we should take for Lent.
First of all we must ask ourselves why Our Lord let Himself be “led out to the desert to be tempted by the devil.” St. Jerome gives us the answer, insisting on the fact that Our Lord willingly went out to the desert and for a very precise purpose. He says :
He was not led out unwillingly or as a captive, but because He wanted a fight. Ducitur non invitus aut captus sed voluntate pugnandi.
Our Lord went out to the desert, then, looking for a fight, a fight, obviously, with the devil. As Cornelius a Lapide says :
Christ went out into the desert in order to provoke Lucifer to combat and overcome him.
St. John tells us : For this purpose the Son of God appeared, that he might destroy the works of the devil (I Jn 3 : 8)
Our Lord had waited patiently 30 years until the time had come for Him to do what He had come to do : “destroy the works of the devil,” but now, finally, the time had arrived and He goes out eagerly to do battle against the devil and defeat him and so deliver the human race from his power. As He Himself later said to the Jews who were murmuring about His exorcisms :
When a strong man armed keepeth his court, those things are in peace which he possesseth. But if a stronger than he come upon him and overcome him, he will take away all his armour wherein he trusted, and will distribute his spoils. (Lk 11 : 21-22)
We will see in a minute how this fight with the devil will be conducted and how Our Lord will overcome the strong man, but first let us note another reason for Our Lord’s going out to the desert to be tempted by the devil, namely, in order to show us how to be victorious in temptation. Thus St. Augustine says :
He offered Himself to temptation that He might be a mediator to enable us to overcome temptation, not only by his help, but also by His example. (…) Christ was tempted so that Christians might not be defeated in temptation.
For indeed, if Christ after His baptism was led out into the desert to be tempted by the devil, it was also to show us that after our baptism we would have to fight against the devil whom we solemnly renounced in our baptism. Each year Lent reminds us of that and calls all Christians to go out into the desert and renew their fight against the devil, who has become their sworn enemy at baptism. Thus St. John Chrysostom writes :
Not only Christ is led out to the desert by the Spirit, but also all the sons of God who have the Holy Ghost : for they do not content themselves with just sitting idle, but the Holy Ghost pushes them to undertake something great and to go out into the desert.
This should be, then, the first lesson we can take from this Gospel this morning, which reminds us that by our baptism we are called to “something great”. We are no longer just “ordinary Joes” that you see on the street every day. We each have a mission, a battle to fight in this great war against the devil that Our Lord solemnly declared and inaugurated on this day when He was “led out to the desert to be tempted by the devil”. As the concluding prayer for the benediction of the ashes on Ash Wednesday so rightly put it, Lent is the time “to begin the service of our Christian warfare : praesidia militiae christianae… inchoare”.
So we must not just sit back and admire the religious monks and nuns who have “gone out to the desert” for good to fight against the devil by their prayer and mortification. During Lent all of us are called up, as it were, to do our “military service.” We may not be full-time soldiers like these religious but you have to do at least our “reserve duty” every year during this holy time of “Christian warfare” when the whole Church goes out with Christ to the desert to fight against the devil.
It is time now to see what form this fight of Our Lord with the devil takes. The Fathers of the Church point out that it was not by His divine power that Our Lord fought against the devil in the desert but by His human humility. St. Jerome, for example, writes :
Christ’s design was to gain the victory by humility ; thus He triumphed over His adversary by the testimonies of the law, not by the power of His strength, in order that He might thus honor man more and punish the adversary more, (since) the enemy of the human race would be defeated not by God but by a man.
And St. Gregory the Great says the same thing :
When Christ was tempted by the devil, He responded by the precepts of Holy Writ and He who could have plunged His adversary into the abyss, did not show the strength of His power, in such a way that He might give us an example so that whenever we suffer something from perverse men we might be provoked to doctrine rather than to vengeance.
We now come to the actual temptations themselves. St. Gregory remarks that the three temptations of Christ in the desert correspond perfectly to the three temptations by which the devil was victorious over Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. He writes :
The old enemy tempted the first man by gluttony when he persuaded him to eat the forbidden fruit ; by vainglory when he said : “You will be like gods;” by avarice when he said : “knowing good and evil” [avarice, here, in the sense not of desire for riches but desire for nobility and power]. But by these same means by which he had brought low the first man, he himself succumbed to the second man he tempted [that is, Christ]. He tempted Him by gluttony when he said : “Command that these stones be made bread;” by vainglory when he said : “If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down;” by the avarice of sublimity when he showed him the kingdoms of the world saying : “All these will I give thee.”
By His victory over the devil on these three points, Our Lord repaired for the fall of Adam and delivered man from the servitude to the devil to whom he had submitted himself by sin. For, as St. Peter says in his second epistle:
By whom a man is overcome, of the same also is he a slave. (2 Pt 2 : 18)
By overcoming the devil, then, in these three temptations by which the devil had overcome Adam, Christ redeemed men from their slavery to the devil, thus accomplishing the greatest, most astonishing, and by far the most important “comeback victory” in history.
St. Ambrose notes also that these three temptations comprise and resume in themselves all temptations, basing himself on St. Luke who says, at the end of his account of this temptation of Christ in the desert : And all… temptation being ended, the devil departed from him. (Lk 4 : 13)
St. Ambrose writes :
See how these three sorts of vices are shown to be the source of all crimes. For Scripture would not have said that all temptation was ended unless in these three be found the material of all sins whose principles are to be shunned in their very origin. The end of the temptations therefore are the end of the evil desires, for the causes of the temptations are the causes of the evil desires ; and the causes of the evil desires are the delight of the flesh, the show of glory and the thirst for power.
So if we but imitate Christ in shunning these three things : the delight of the flesh (carnis delectatio), the show of glory (species gloriae), and the thirst for power (aviditas potentiae), we also shall be free from all sin and victorious over the devil.
At the beginning of this Lent, then, let us take generous resolutions by which we will truly follow Christ out into the desert to fight against the devil by detaching from all these things that lead to sin.
Against “the delight of the flesh”, let us take serious resolutions to mortify our senses. It is not without reason that this was the object of the first temptation, because the easiest and most common way that the devil makes men fall into hell is by making them fall into the sins of the flesh. It is there, then, that we too must start, by cutting back, during this time, on even legitimate pleasures of the body, so that we won’t fall when the devil proposes to us illegitimate pleasures. In this way too, we can repair for the times we have fallen in the past, as well as strengthen ourselves against temptations in the future.
Secondly, against “the show of glory”, let us resolve to lead a more retired life during this holy time of Lent. Instead of going out and showing ourselves, let us retire into “our chamber and pray the Father who is in secret”, as Our Lord counsels us to do in the Sermon on the Mount. In some religious Orders there is the custom for everyone to choose a good spiritual book at the beginning of Lent and read it during the time before Easter. This is something concrete that everyone could easily do which would be an excellent resolution for Lent.
Thirdly, let us combat the “thirst for power” by being more submissive to authority. Everyone here below, with the sole exception of the pope, has authorities he must obey, whether it be in the Church, with regard to the laws of the Church or those who are our pastors, or in the world, with regard to the State, or at work or at school or in the family. Let us make an effort to be more submissive to these authorities and we will be surprised, perhaps, how much closer that brings us to God.
To conclude, we can just read the following stirring exhortation given by St. Bernard of Clairvaux to his monks at the beginning of Lent. What he says applies to us all for, as we saw, Lent is the time of military service for all the followers of Christ. And that is precisely what St. Bernard says to begin :
Today, dearest brethren, we enter upon the holy season of Lent, upon the season of special warfare for the Christian (tempus militiae Christianae). This Lenten observance is not confined to ourselves : it is common to all who are united to us by the profession of the one true faith. Why should not all Christians participate in the fast of Christ ? Why should not the members follow their Head ? “If we have received good things” from our Divine Head, “why should we not receive evil” (Job 2 : 10) ? Is it that we want to share in His joys and to have no part in His sorrows ? If that be the case, we prove ourselves unworthy to be His members. For all that He suffers, He suffers for our sake. But if we are unwilling to co-operate with Him in the work of our own salvation, how, I ask, shall we show ourselves His coadjutors (I Cor 3:9) ? Surely it is no great thing for him to fast with Christ, who is destined to sit with Christ at His Father’s table. Surely it is nothing great that the member should suffer with the Head when it is also to be glorified with the Head. Happy the member that in all things adheres faithfully to this Head and follows Him “whithersoever He goeth” (Ap 14 : 4) ! But if ever it should chance to be cut off and separated from the Head, it shall also be deprived, immediately and of necessity, of the spirit of life. (First Sermon for Lent)