I have mentioned before that I am reading Fr. James Martin’s book, Jesus, A Pilgrimage. In one chapter he describes a trip through the desert. He wants to assure us that if we are imaging a desert in the Holy Land, perhaps even the desert referred to in the Gospel today, we should not imagine the American southwest with colorful cactus and picturesque rock formations. He describes something more desolate and threatening.
The presentation of the incident of Jesus’ time in the desert begins with noting the role of the Holy Spirit in the venture. The Holy Spirit led Jesus into the desert following the manifestation of the Holy Spirit in Jesus’ baptism. So Jesus’ desert experience, during which He would be tempted, was marked by His active unity with God. The event became an occasion of public affirmation from Jesus that He had come to do the Father’s will and He could do so because of His confidence in the presence of the Father, with whom He is united as Son in the power of the Holy Spirit. The event is an important testimony to the power of faith in God in order to do God’s will.
Faith and affirmation of God’s power is the key element in the other readings that are assigned to accompany this Gospel. In our first reading Moses was giving instructions to God’s people as they were preparing to conclude their Exodus journey under God’s guidance and settle in the land that God was giving them. The offering made to the priest would be a gesture of gratitude for what God had done and a gesture of faith in what God would continue to do for His faithful people.
Our psalm was a prayer of confidence and petition in a God who seeks to protect His people. It includes the line quoted by the tempter used against Jesus when He was tempting Jesus to somehow demand that God prove Himself through some special intervention. St. Paul brings the message of the importance of faith to its high point by expressing the fundamental Christian belief that it is our faith that Jesus is Lord that brings us salvation.
The Gospel outlines the temptations of Jesus that cover the vast array of temptations that come along to tempt any one of us to falter in our faith and commitment to doing God’s will. The temptation for Jesus to respond to His physical hunger by using His supposed divine powers just to feed Himself represents all the ways that our appropriate use of material things can be skewed to the point of selfishness or disorder that harms ourselves or others. We are tempted to use things in a way that is contrary to God’s will instead of using them in a way that helps us better do God’s will. The temptation to let Satan provide some sort of power and glory represents all the ways that we might seek to glorify ourselves, place ourselves above others and seek to use our abilities, our powers to exercise manipulate or use other people. The third temptation relates to, as it were, testing God by demanding God serve us rather than that we serve Him. It encompasses all the temptations to seek to try to know and relate to God entirely on our own terms as if He were our own creation. It is the temptation to give God access to our hearts only when it is convenient for us.
Lent is our own journey into a desert of sorts. Rather than into a place of desolation it is a desert away from some of the ordinary distractions of life. Perhaps it is more challenging because we do so even as we live our normal lives of work and family. It is note the desert to expose us to temptation but the desert to refine our ability to resist temptation. The recommended Lenten exercises can especially deal with our own vulnerability to falter in our true faith in God. When we engage in self-denial we test and refine our freedom to control our appetites, our desires, rather than be enslaved by them. The giving of alms has us look at others as objects or our charity and not our control or use. And the renewed efforts of prayer refine our relationship with God in Jesus Christ so that we truly make Him our Lord. We hear Him call us to fidelity and we find the promised strength to practice self-denial and give alms.
Jesus, in His desert prayer, provided a model for all of us. If we use Lent to dispose ourselves to greater union with God, we will discover the ways that God truly does want to provide for us. As with Jesus our Lenten journey does not remove all future challenges it simply makes us stronger to face those challenges. As we conclude our Lent with Easter celebrations we remind ourselves that whatever sacrifice is made in resisting temptation aligns us to Jesus who gloriously rose after the most dramatic experience of sacrifice, the sacrifice of His life in the pain of the cross.
The Gospel today ends with a simple little note that after the temptation Satan departed from Jesus “for at time.” Indeed Satan will again return when Jesus would experience His agony in the Garden before His arrest. Once again, He would affirm His desire to do God’s will.
It is the gloriously obedient Jesus, now reigning gloriously in heaven, whom we seek to grow closer to this Lent. He is the God who promises to remain at our side so that we resist all temptations to ignore or resist God’s will. We are not alone in the desert. Jesus, the victor over temptation is with us, as is His Father and the Holy Spirit.