Sunday, March 13, 2011

First Sunday of Lent - Gospel Reflections

In today's Gospel, the Spirit leads Jesus out into the desert for a time of prayer, fasting, and temptation. This sounds a lot like Lent, doesn't it? During Lent, the Church encourages her children to pray more and to deny themselves through fasting, abstinence from meat, and other acts of penance. And, of course, when we commit ourselves to an increase in good actions, temptations are sure to extra hour of “interesting” television instead of praying the Stations of the Cross, a delicious-looking hot fudge sundae even though we're trying to give up sweets as a form of penance, temptations run rampant.

When Jesus finishes His forty days and forty nights of fasting in the desert, He is hungry. This shouldn't be any major news. After all, Jesus was human, just like us. He got hungry and thirsty and tired just like we do. He was probably feeling a bit weak because while He may not have gone without food completely, He certainly ate sparingly.

The tempter, or devil, took this opportunity to pounce on the “vulnerable” Jesus and offer Him three significant temptations. We might ask ourselves why in the world Jesus would have even let the devil try to tempt Him. He could have merely flicked the enemy away like an annoying little gnat. St. Augustine tells us that Jesus allowed Himself to be tempted for our sake, so that we might attain victory over our own temptations. Listen to what Augustine has to say:

“[Jesus] made us one with Him when He chose to be tempted by Satan....In Christ you were tempted, for Christ received His flesh from your nature, by His own power gained salvation for you...If in Christ we have been tempted, in Him we overcome the devil. Do you think only of Christ's temptations and fail to think of His victory? See yourself as tempted in Him, and see yourself as victorious in Him. He could have kept the devil from Himself; but if He were not tempted He could not teach you how to triumph over temptation.”

So Jesus accepts temptation for us so that He might gain victory for us over temptation and show us how to conquer during our own bouts with the enemy.

The devil tempts Jesus in three ways. First, he asks Him to use His miracle-working power to turn stones into bread to satisfy His hunger. Second, he invites Him to throw Himself off the top of the Temple. Third, he offers Him all the kingdoms of the world if only Jesus would bow down and worship him. Let's take a brief look at each of these three temptations (of course, there are countless possibilities for interpretation and reflection here, so we will merely scratch the surface).

When the devil tells Jesus to turn stones into bread, he is really asking Him to use (or misuse) His power for selfish, materialistic reasons. He's asking Jesus to put Himself first, to use His divine power to satisfy His human hunger. Are we sometimes tempted to misuse our divinely-given talents and abilities? Do we act selfishly and put ourselves and our wants and needs before the wants and needs of others? Are we too focused on material things? Do we let our hunger and thirst for possessions rule our lives?

After Jesus shoots him down with a strong reminder that people don't live on bread alone but on the words of God, the devil tries again. He takes Jesus up on the Temple and invites Him to jump, reminding Him (in the language of Scripture) that God had promised angels to support Him. Essentially, by jumping off the Temple, Jesus would be making God prove Himself. He would be testing God, challenging Him, really, to keep His promise. This is, of course, very stupid and very insulting to God, Who is more powerful than every human being combined and then some and certainly doesn't need to prove Himself to anyone. By performing such an challenging action, a person would be actually be implicitly claiming to be greater than God, Who would be called upon as a mere servant Who must do His creature's will and save him from falling into the deep and breaking every bone in his body. Do we do the equivalent of this sometimes when we get ourselves in messes of our own making and then expect God to come and pull us out? Do we test God by demanding signs from Him? Do we expect Him to jump at our every whim and serve us? Do we want Him to do our will instead of lovingly accepting His infinitely-superior will?

Finally, after Jesus once again shoots down the devil by refusing to test God, Satan tries one more strategy. He takes Jesus up on a high mountain, shows Him all the kingdoms of the world, and tells Him that it would be very easy to be the ruler of them all. All He would have to do is bow down and worship the devil. This is, of course, the worst kind of idolatry and denial of God. Most people don't go that far, of course. They don't actually worship the devil, but they do create idols for themselves. Do we “worship” power or money or possessions? Do those things hold a higher place in our lives than God does? Do we ever perform immoral actions to attain the idols in our lives?

At this point, Jesus does flick the devil away like the annoying gnat he is. “Get away, Satan!” He commands. “The Lord, your God, shall you worship and Him alone shall you serve.” The devil leaves immediately, for even he doesn't dare disobey a direct order from the Son of God, Who has so thoroughly vanquished him in his attempts at temptation. We are left to contemplation angels ministering to Jesus and to reflect on our own temptations and struggles.

Lord Jesus, strengthen us to resist the devil and to conquer all the temptations he throws at us. Help us to follow Your example and share in Your victory. Amen.

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