On this first Sunday of Lent, the Church places before us two stories of temptation; Adam and Eve tempted by the serpent in the garden, and the temptation of Jesus after forty days and nights in the desert. In these two readings, alone, we see the wide swath of Salvation History in which Jesus Christ enters into combat with the enemy that has always sought to destroy us.
Yes, the devil exists, and in all sorts of ways wreaks havoc on the world. From the earliest moments of Christianity, the Church was conscious of diabolical activity. Saint Peter writes, “be sober and vigilant, your opponent the devil is prowling around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5). While we can be tempted to despair in the face of such an enemy, God doesn’t abandon us to the power of the devil. We see in many passages in Sacred Scripture Jesus displaying His divine kingship by overcoming the power of the devil, freeing people from demonic possession, and muzzling the great deceiver.
In this Gospel passage we witness the first time that Satan, the deceiver and king of lies, directly and openly intervened in the life of Jesus. While the devil had previously acted in the shadows, he now directly puts Jesus to the test in order to discover if this really was the long-prophesied Messiah. Jesus, whose every act is a teaching for those of us who follow him, allows the devil to tempt him in order to show us an example of humility, and to train us in how we might also overcome temptations in our lives. Jesus enters into combat with our adversary to give us hope that we, too, can persevere against the suffering of great temptations. In this display of spiritual combat, Jesus is reinforcing for Christians that, even after our baptism, we shouldn’t be surprised when faced with temptations of any sort. In fact, the Liturgy today reminds us that Christ can providentially use temptation to make us holy, to help separate us from our addictions in this life, and lead us to true happiness. In the Letter of Saint James, we’re told that “blessed is the man who perseveres in temptation, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life which God has promised to those who love him.” (James 1:12).
Take, for example, the way by which the devil first chooses to tempt Jesus. Satan tempts Jesus by taking advantage of the physical weakness of His human nature – He just spent forty days fasting, He must be extraordinarily hungry and weak! This moment of physical weakness is the very time that the devil chooses to strike, proposing that Jesus should fulfill His need for food by turning stones into bread. Jesus, in an act of humility, refuses to use His divine power to avoid His difficulties. Jesus is showing us that the devil will often tempt us most fiercely in our weakest moments, and we ought to be vigilant over our own desire for comfort. The devil always promises more than he can give, and our happiness and fulfillment is the furthest thing that he can truly bestow upon us. Jesus promises us eternal life and happiness, and He will always keep His promises.
This Lent, we accompany Jesus for those forty days in the desert, and we too might feel that same physical weakness that wracked Christ. Follow the example of Jesus, and arm yourself with the weapons that Jesus has displayed for us; continuous prayer, abundant generosity, humility, and spiritual intimacy with God. Remember our weakness, and abandon ourselves to Christ, so that we might not be led into temptation, but rather be delivered from all evil.