1st Sunday of Lent
You shall worship the Lord, your God,
and him alone shall you serve.”
The first Sunday of Lent always sets for us the major theme 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, then, 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 name appears in the Gospel today and he uses the same weapons against our race then as now, the deception of temptation. The name of this evil power is Satan.
Today’s Gospel shows us the second Adam being tempted, but with quite a different outcome from the first Adam’s temptation. The first Adam surrendered to the temptation to love himself more than God’s law, and God, and that surrender brought death and devastation to offspring, that is, to the whole human race descended from him. On the other hand, this second Adam triumphed over Satan’s temptations, and over Satan as well, and that triumph of Jesus purchased salvation for the whole human race, giving everyone a chance to enter a Paradise utterly superior to the one that Adam lost.
I say that His victory gives us all “a chance” to be saved with a reason; it’s simply because there is always this one basic requirement, that we ourselves also have to conquer sin and temptation or we will not share in the Lord’s ultimate victory. This hoped for salvation, nonetheless, is enticingly powerful, for it means nothing less than the victory of life over death, the victory of light over darkness, the victory over the prince of Hell, the victory that brings eternal happiness and avoids eternal unhappiness. St. Augustine once said, however, that if we are to win this crown of victory, we must first enter the struggle, and we must overcome the enemy who desires our total surrender.
However, in our struggle to win this great victory, we also have a great advantage even over the first Adam. For in our struggle with temptation and with sin and darkness and death, we now have privileged access to the powerful grace of Jesus Christ, which is in truth a much more greater grace than was available to the first Adam in his struggle with Satan This grace is the very same grace that Christ himself used in His victory over Satan and gives to us so we might conquer as well, in His name.
It is also truly comforting to know that our Lord Himself understands very well from his own personal experience just how difficult it is for us to overcome temptations in our life. After all, we see in the Gospels that He faced very real temptations, beginning with those He faced in the desert, which we can barely understand. So too, we all have our own temptations, presenting so many possibilities of sin in little matters and often in great matters. Indeed, the wisdom of the Gospels enables us to affirm often in our life, when we learn of the sin of others, “Oh, but for the grace of God there would go I”; or when we overcome a great temptation, “had it not been for the grace of Christ, I would have given in to that temptation.”
So we know from the Scriptures that Christ conquered his temptations also for our sake, so that we would have His grace and could triumph over sin and Satan. See in today’s second reading how St. Paul assures us that in facing all our trials we have the greatest of resources at our disposal; he says “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 does our victory take place; and not only in the life to come but in this life as well.
Lent, then, is a very special time of redeeming 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 enable us 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, which is always the primary means that enables us to defeat our common enemy and to conquer our own sinfulness. And we can see all this suggested in today’s final two readings.
Recalling the temptation of Adam and Eve in Genesis as a background to the Gospel, we can discover the very inner nature of every temptation and of sin, regardless of the kind of sin involved in the temptation. The key idea is found in the words of Satan to our first parents, that if they choose to do their own will rather than the will of God then “you will be like God,” for God as God always does what he wills. Now that sentence is the very root of every temptation, and the very essence of every sin. Sin is choosing to follow our own will always, even when it is contrary to the will of God. Sin is always a self-assertion, a self-promotion, the selfish determination to follow our own 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, and by implication, his own god, “you will be like God.”
How different all this is from the Gospel today, where Jesus, the second Adam, did not act like the first Adam, but rather, as always, chooses to follow the will of His Father.
The background of these temptations is crucial. For, at least from the time of His baptism, because of the words of John and of the Father, Satan must have known that Jesus was likely the chosen one, the Messiah of God. It must have become obvious to Satan, who – as we learn from that third temptation where Satan quotes the Scriptures – that he had studied the Scriptures. So he likely understood that this Jesus, this poor and humble man in the Jordan, had been thus designated the Messiah by God, as foretold by the prophet Isaiah who foresaw that the Messiah would be a suffering servant and not a glorious figure following a path of power and glory to accomplish his mission.
On the other hand, Satan obviously did not at all believe that Jesus was also God, or he would have known that any temptation would, in that case, be useless. Jesus had carefully hidden this truth of who He really is not only from men, but also from Satan as well.
So Satan blindly tries to tempt Jesus – whom he sees as a mere man, even if chosen by God – to follow his, Jesus’, own chosen way, his own path, his own plan for accomplishing his mission regardless of how God may have willed it to be accomplished.
And so Satan’s basic temptation was to suggest to Jesus that he should choose to deviate from the plan of God, the Father, and to use whatever powers he possessed as Messiah in ways that would overwhelm the people he wanted to be his followers. He suggested, in other words, that it would be more effective for his mission for Jesus 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? Well then, don’t depend upon the Father to supply your needs, rather be self-sufficient and use your miraculous powers to provide for your own human needs. That will get you a following!
Are you obscure and unknown, Jesus? Well then, cast yourself down from the temple. That will certainly get people’s attention! In fact, 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 certainly will save 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 politically 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 myself have just the solution because the world is, conveniently in this regard, in my power. All that you have to do is worship me, and I’ll give you the whole world, for the world is truly under my power.
But then we hear the glorious 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, He teaches, is far more important for a man, for human perfection and happiness, than even man’s physical needs, like his 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 try to force God to do one’s will. No, 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.” Thus he teaches us that every sin has hidden within it, at its core, 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 absolutely refused to follow the 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 exactly as to how he was to accomplish His mission. “Not my will, but thine be done, but thine” – 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 required path for the life of every Christian – not my will be done, but thine. And there we also have the ultimate test of every Christian’s faith in God. Do I really believe that doing God’s will perfectly is not only what will make me perfect but will also make me joyful? Lent makes us ask ourselves that question every year, and this season of grace and renewal gives us the opportunity to answer it positively. By God’s grace, we choose again only do the will of God, and we do this only if we take seriously the necessity of denying ourselves and 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.”