Gn. 2:7-9, 3:1-7; Ps. 51; Rom. 5:12-19; Mt. 4:1-11
(Audio recorded live, 26 February 2023)
Today is the First Sunday of Lent, but our observance of the season of Lent began on Ash Wednesday. Many of us came to receive ashes as a sacramental sign of penance that we are now entering into this holy season. The wearing of ashes is itself an act of penance that predates even the Church. The ancient Israelites had several acts of penance, including sitting in ashes and wearing sackcloth. The ashes had a dual function, first as a type of self-mortification as well as an outward sign to others that someone was mourning or doing penance. Wearing sackcloth, which was a rough, fibrous material, was another form of self-mortification. It was a way of causing not harm, but discomfort, so that the individual may offer their discomfort as an act of penance. This would have been done, mind you, with the same level of contrition we heard in today’s Psalm: “Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness; in the greatness of your compassion wipe out my offense…For I acknowledge my offense, and my sin is before me always.” This is the disposition of the sinner seeking God’s mercy and forgiveness.
In today’s gospel we hear Matthew’s account of Jesus being tempted by the Devil in the desert. The desert is a harsh, formidable, ruinous landscape. It is hot during the day, and cold at night. Dangerous animals are prowling and the only shelter to be found is under large rocks. This is where the Holy Spirit led Jesus to fast and pray for 40 days.
The imagery of the desert is also an ancient one. The desert, or wilderness, was often connected to death. One does not survive for very long in such a formidable place. The Israelites wandered the desert for 40 years before entering into the Promise Land, but they had help from God. And while in the desert, they underwent much testing. First, they had to unlearn old habits. For instance, no sooner than Moses goes up the mountain to receive from God the 10 Commandments do the Israelites melt down all their gold and create a Golden Calf to worship. The Calf, or Hapis, was the primary deity in the pantheon of Egyptian theology. This also explains why the Lord gave us the first commandment: “You shall not make for yourself an idol or a likeness of anything in the heavens above or on the earth below or in the waters beneath the earth; you shall not bow down before them or serve them” (Ex. 20:4-5a). Second, the people needed to learn who the One True God really is. Time and again the people complained against the Lord, but Moses would intercede for them and the Lord would provide them bread from heaven, meat from quail, and would give them water from a stone. Ultimately, they learn the ways of the Lord, by keeping his covenant and the commandments, a new way of life far greater than the life of slavery in Egypt. All this because the people chose to withstand their enemy and embrace God.
Jesus mirrors for us the People of Israel in today’s gospel. He too, was fasting in the desert, and Matthew tells us he was hungry. It was then that the tempter came to Jesus asking, “If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become loaves of bread.” Twice the tempter says, “If you are the Son of God.” It would seem this is the real test. The other things are merely accidental to the truth of the matter. As readers of the Gospel, we already know that Jesus is the Son of God, but perhaps some still doubt. Perhaps we ought to ask ourselves this question: Do I believe Jesus is the Son of God? It would seem this is what the Devil is really after. And despite Jesus’ own weakness from fasting, and his hunger for earthly food, he nevertheless puts the Devil in his place. Jesus resists the tempter by quoting Scripture. He says what we should all say when faced with similar temptations.
Have you ever tried using Scripture to resist temptation? I do it all the time. One does not have to be an expert to benefit from the Scriptures. Even a single line of Scripture is enough to overcome to strongest of temptations. In fact, each time Jesus is tempted, he cites a single line of Scripture. Can we do the same? When we feel tempted to break our Lenten promises, to cheat on the sacrifices we are making, can we use Scripture to defeat the tempter? Jesus shows us how in the Gospel.
And the temptations Jesus faced are really no different than the temptations we face. The first temptation is for Jesus to manipulate nature, to turn stones into bread. How often are we tempted to manipulate things, to bend them to our will, to make things more favorable to ourselves? The second temptation is to use technology to create a spectacle of ourselves. The Devil tells Jesus to throw himself off the top of the Temple and let the angles catch him. What a site that would be. People would surely believe he was powerful then, wouldn’t they? Have we been tempted to use technology to draw attention to ourselves? Are we doctoring our images up on Instagram? Do we try to impress others by our Facebook and Tik-Tok posts? Lastly, the Devil tempts Jesus to have power over all the kingdoms of the world. This one is just stupid on the part of the Devil, because Jesus already is King of the Universe. But, what about us? Are we tempted to power? Do we seek positions of honor and status? Have we been tempted to give up part of our soul for some kind of earthly benefit?Just remember what Jesus says, “Get away, Satan! It is written: The Lord, your God, shall you worship and him alone shall you serve.”
And so, as we continue our journey through Lent, perhaps we might spend some extra time reading Sacred Scripture, committing to memory those passages which can help us in a time of testing. I am certain there is no other text more profitable to strengthening our faith than what we find in the Bible. And as always, may the breaking open of the Word lead us to the breaking of the Bread, the Body and Blood of our Blessed Lord, Jesus Christ, the cornerstone of our faith.