1st Sunday of Lent
For if by the transgression of the one, the many died,
how much more did the grace of God
and the gracious gift of the one man Jesus Christ
overflow for the many. Romans 5:17
The first Sunday of Lent always sets for us the major themes of this holy season. Lent reminds us that we are engaged in a true spiritual warfare, a war that ends for us only with our passing from this world. This holy season is fundamentally a time for overcoming the power of sin in my life, and the power of sin has a name in the scriptures, and that power appears in two of our readings today and uses the same weapons against our race, then as now, the power of temptation, the power of Satan.
The readings today show us the first Adam and the second Adam being tempted, but with quite different outcomes. The first Adam gave in to the temptation and that surrender brought death and devastation upon his offspring, that is, the whole human race. On the other hand, the second Adam triumphed over Satan’s temptations and over Satan as well, and that triumph of Jesus brought salvation for the whole human race, at least potentially.
I say that His victory is ours potentially because there is this one problem, that we ourselves also have to conquer sin and temptation, or we will not share in the Lord’s ultimate victory, the victory of life over death, the victory of light over darkness, the victory of the Lord of Heaven over the prince of Hell, the victory that brings eternal happiness and escapes from eternal unhappiness. St. Augustine says that if we are to win the crown, we must first enter the struggle, and then we must overcome the enemy who desires our total surrender. However, in our winning this victory, we have a great advantage in this struggle with sin and darkness and death. For we have access to the grace of Jesus Christ, an even more powerful grace than the first Adam had in his struggle with Satan, the grace that Christ himself won for us in his victory over Satan.
It is comforting to know that our Lord understands very well just how difficult it is for us to overcome temptations in our life. After all we see in the Gospels that He faced temptations also, like those He faced in the desert that we can only barely understand. So we each have our own temptations, presenting so many possibilities of sin in little matters and at times in great matters. Indeed, the wisdom of the Gospels enables us to say many times in his life, Oh, but for the grace of God there go I; I would have given in to that temptation.
But we know Christ conquered in our name and for our sake, so that we could triumph also. And St. Paul assures us that in facing all these trials, that we have great resources at our disposal, and thus “how much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of justification come to reign in life through the one Jesus Christ.” By God’s grace this victory takes place in this life and not only in the life to come.
Lent, then, is a very special time of grace, a time for examining our consciences, for strengthening our weak knees, for confessing our sins, and for renewing our lives by self-denial and other Lenten disciplines to conquer sin in the name of and by the power of Jesus Christ. It is truly a time of divine generosity in both mercy and grace, and it is His grace that enables us to defeat our common enemy and conquer our own sinfulness. And we can see all this in today’s readings at Mass.
Today’s first reading gives us an insight into the very nature of temptation and of sin, regardless of the kind of sin involved in the temptation. The key is found in the words of Satan to our first parents, that if they do their own will rather than the will of God then “you will be like God,” for God always does his own will. That is the heart of every temptation, and the very essence of every sin. Sin is choosing to follow our own will even when it is contrary to the will of God. Sin is always self-assertion, self-promotion, the selfish determination to follow our will regardless of anything else, even regardless of the will of God. Adam chose to follow his own will rather than the commandment of God because Adam in a real sense, like Satan, wanted to be his own Master, his own god.
How different all this is from the Gospel today. Jesus, the second Adam, did not act like the first Adam, rather at whatever cost, He always chose to follow the will of His Father. At least from the moment of His baptism, Satan knows that Jesus is the chosen one, the Messiah of God. Obviously he did not believe that Jesus was also God, or he would have known that temptation was in that case useless. Jesus had carefully hidden this truth of who He really is not only from men, but from Satan as well. So Satan tries to tempt Jesus, who he now knows is the Messiah because of the Father’s own words of his baptism, and he tries to tempt Jesus to follow his own way, his own path, his own plan for accomplishing his mission rather than the way the Father willed it to be accomplished.
It must have been obvious to Satan that this Jesus, this poor and humble man who has been designated the Messiah by God, has been sent to follow not a path of power and glory to accomplish his mission, but rather to follow the path of the suffering servant depicted by the prophet Isaiah. We know the devil knew the Scriptures, for he even quoted from the Scriptures in one of the desert temptations. So Satan was well aware that the prophet Isaiah foretold that the Messiah would actually be a poor and obscure man of suffering. And here was Jesus living a life that could only be identified with that particular portrayal of the Messiah in Isaiah.
And so Satan tried to tempt him to deviate from the plan of the Father, to use his power in ways that would overwhelm his followers, to choose the path of glory and self-assertion, the way of the world and its powerful and power hungry leaders. Are you hungry, Jesus, then don’t depend upon the Father to supply your needs, rather be self-sufficient and use your powers to provide for your own human needs. Are you obscure and unknown, Jesus, then cast yourself down from the temple. That will get people’s attention because many of your fellow Jews are aware that there is a tradition the Messiah will mount up to the top of the temple. And if you cast yourself off and God saves you, that will be all the greater proof for them, that will show that your mission is guaranteed by God in a very powerful way. Are you weak, Jesus, do you have no armies to conquer a kingdom quickly, can’t you see how long it will take to establish your kingdom if you don’t use force? Surely God cannot expect you not to see your victory during your own lifetime? And I have just the solution because the world is in my power. All that you have to do is worship me, and I’ll give you the whole world, for the world is often under my power.
And then we hear the replies of Jesus to counter each temptation. First, “not by bread alone does man live, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Doing God’s will is more important for a man, for human perfection and happiness than even his physical need for bread. Secondly, “Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.” Yes it might get people’s attention to jump from the temple pinnacle, but it’s either suicide or trying to force God to work a miracle. In other words, to force God to do my will. One should never use an evil means even to accomplish what might be a good end.
Then come the final words of Jesus at the third temptation which should have been the words of the first Adam and should be the words of all of his children down through the ages: “Begone Satan, the Lord your God alone shall you adore.” Every sin has hidden within it a refusal to adore God alone, to recognize God alone as God, to place God’s will above one’s created will at every moment. Jesus did not follow this path of sin and Satan. He chose not only to perfectly fulfill the Father’s will regarding what he was to do during his life and mission, but also to follow the Father’s will as to how he was to accomplish His mission. “Not my will but thine be done” – those are the words of Jesus not only in the garden in his agony, but in the desert and from the very beginning of his life and throughout his whole life in this world.
There you have the program for the life of every Christian – not my will be done, but thine. And there we have the ultimate test of every Christian’s faith in God, do we really believe that doing God’s will perfectly is what will make us joyful, make us perfect? Lent makes us asked that question every year, and this season of grace gives us the opportunity to answer it. We will only do the will of God if we take seriously the necessity of denying ourselves, of uniting our own will to His will, and thus saying once again with Jesus in the face of every temptation, “Be gone Satan. God alone will I adore.”