An Ordinary Viewpoint

Ashes to Glory - II


Each year the Gospel passage liturgically proclaimed on the First Sunday of Lent is one of Synoptics’ accounts of the temptations experienced by our Savior after His desert retreat, which followed upon His baptism by Saint John the Baptist, His public investiture on that occasion as the Messiah, the Christ, by the words of God the Father and the descent of the Holy Spirit, and then His forty days and nights of fasting. This narrative, of course, is not simply about the temptations of Christ, but, even more importantly, about the great victory of Jesus against the wiles and snares of Lucifer, the Prince of devils. It is important that we annually hear and ponder this Gospel pericope because, as Jesuit Father William Dalton, explains, "It would be to our own (spiritual) peril to neglect the emphasis of the New Testament on Christ’s victorious battle with the hostile angelic powers" (Mark 1:12-13; Luke 4:13).

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, "The Evangelists indicate the salvific meaning of this mysterious event. Jesus is the new Adam Who remained faithful just where the first Adam had given in to temptation. Jesus fulfills Israel’s vocation perfectly, in contrast to those who had once provoked God’s wrath during forty years in the desert. Christ reveals Himself as God’s Servant, (Isaiah 53: 3-12), totally obedient to the divine will. In this Jesus is the Devil’s Conqueror. He binds the strong man to take back his plunder (Mark 3:27; Psalm 95:10). Jesus’ victory over the Tempter in the desert anticipates His victory at His passion, the supreme act of His obedience, of His filial love for the Father."

The Catechism goes on to remark, "Jesus’ temptations reveal the way in which the Son of God is the Messiah, contrary to the way Satan proposes to Him and the way men wish to attribute to Him. This is why Christ vanquished the Tempter for us. ‘For we have not a High Priest Who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but One Who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sinning’(Hebrews 4:15). By the solemn forty days of Lent the Church unites herself each year to the mystery of Jesus in the desert."


In the first volume of his splendid work, "Jesus of Nazareth", which he calls "my personal search for the face of the Lord", our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, devotes an entire chapter to "The Temptations of Jesus". In his biblical and theological reflection, the Pope points out how this Lenten Gospel narrative applies to our present cultural situation. He writes, "At the heart of all temptations is the act of pushing God aside because we perceive Him as secondary, if not actually superfluous and annoying, in comparison with all the apparently far more urgent matters that fill our lives. Constructing a world by our own lights, without reference to God, building on our own foundation, refusing to acknowledge the reality of anything beyond the political and material, while setting God aside as an illusion, that is the temptation that threatens us in many varied forms."

"Moral posturing is part and parcel of temptation. It does not invite us directly to do evil, no, that would be far too blatant. It pretends to show us a better way, where we finally abandon our illusions and throw ourselves into the work of actually making the world a better place. It claims, moreover, to speak for true realism. What’s real is what is right there in front of us, power and bread. By comparison the things of God fade into unreality, into a secondary world that no one really needs. God is the issue. Is He real, Reality Itself, or isn’t He? The God question is the fundamental question, and it sets us down right at the crossroads of human existence. What must the Savior of the world do or not do? That is the question the temptations of Jesus is about."


The Bishop of Rome points out how the first temptation (according to Saint Matthew) begins, "If You are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread" (Matthew 4:3). These words again are found in the mouths of the mocking bystanders at the foot of the cross, "If You are the Son of God, come down from the cross" (Matthew 27:40). The Pope says, "Mockery and temptation blend into each other here. Christ is being challenged to establish His credibility by offering evidence for His claims. This demand for proof is a constantly recurring theme in the story of Jesus’ life. Again and again He is reproached for having failed to prove Himself sufficiently, for having hitherto failed to work that great miracle that will remove all ambiguity and every contradiction, so as to make it indisputably clear for everyone Who and What He is or is not."

Now the Pope says that mankind continues these blasphemies and demonic acts of evil pride: "We make this same demand of God and Christ and His Church throughout the whole of human history. If You exist, God, we say, then You’ll just have to show Yourself. You’ll have to part the clouds that conceal You and give us the clarity we deserve. If You, Christ, are really the Son of God and not just another of the enlightened individuals who keep appearing in the course of history, then You’ll just have to prove it more clearly than You are doing now. And, if the Church is really supposed to be Yours, You’ll have to make it that much more obvious than it is at present. The issue is that God has to submit to experiment. He is to be tested as products are tested. To think like that is to make oneself God, and to do so is to abase not only God, but the world and oneself too."

Damned Error

In his play "The Merchant of Venice" Shakespeare says, "In religion what damned error, but some sober brow will bless it and approve it with a text." Especially in the second temptation (Matthew 4:5-7) does the Devil, like a Protestant citing "proof texts" to persuade people to adopt his doctrinal mistakes and religious innovations, present himself as a Scripture scholar and theologian to dispute arrogantly with Jesus. Pope Benedict says realizing this fact "is not a rejection of scholarly biblical interpretation as such, but an eminently salutary and necessary warning against its possible aberrations." Just as we know that the devils in hell believe but that their faith alone certainly was not enough to save them (James 2:19), so those fallen angels evidently also know the Bible, but that knowledge too is not enough for their salvation.

The Holy Father mentions that after the episode of the temptations, "Jesus emerged victorious in His battle with Satan. To the Tempter’s lying divinization of power and prosperity, to his lying promise of a future that offers all things to all men through power and through wealth, He responds to the fact that God is God, that God is man’s true Good. To the invitation to worship power, the Lord answers with a passage from Deuteronomy, the same book the Devil himself had cited: ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and Him only shall you serve’ (Matthew 4:10; Deuteronomy 6:13). This fundamental commandment of Israel is also the fundamental commandment for Christians. God alone is to be worshiped."

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