1st Sunday of Lent
The first Sunday of Lent always sets for us the major themes of this holy season. For Lent reminds us that we are engaged in a true spiritual warfare in this world, a war that ends for us only with our passing from this world into Heaven. This holy season, then, is fundamentally a time for overcoming the power of sin in our lives, and this power of sin has a personal name in the scriptures, which appears in two of our readings today, the power of Satan, who uses the same weapons against our race, then as now, the weapon of temptation,.
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 devil’s temptation and that surrender brought death and devastation upon his offspring, that is, upon the whole of the human race. On the other hand, the second Adam triumphed over Satan’s temptations and over Satan as well, and that triumph of Jesus bought 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 of Christ, 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 knows very well just how difficult it is for us to overcome temptations in our life. After all, we see in the Gospels that He himself faced great temptations, beginning with those He underwent in the desert, which we can only barely understand. So too, 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 might well have given in to that temptation.
But we know Christ conquered everything in our name and for our sake, so that we also could triumph over sin. And St. Paul assures us that in facing trials we have great resources at our disposal, and thus we have a great hope based upon the abundance of grace won for us by Jesus Christ. By God’s grace, then, this victory already begins to take place in this world, and will surely come to perfection 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 acts of self-denial and other Lenten disciplines which enable us to conquer sin in the name of Jesus and by the power of Jesus. 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 two readings, for instance, gives us a great insight into the very nature of temptation and sin, regardless of the kind of sin involved in any temptation. Both readings speak of the Original sin of Adam that brought death and suffering to all mankind. The key insight 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 great lie is the heart of every temptation, and is the root 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 own will regardless of anything else, regardless even 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 this outcome is from the Gospel today. Jesus, the second Adam, did not act like the first Adam. Rather, at whatever cost, He 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 yet believe that Jesus was also God, or he would have known that temptation was in that case useless. Jesus had carefully hidden this deep 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 so Satan tries to tempt Jesus to follow his own way, his own path, by choosing another plan for accomplishing his mission rather than the way the Father willed our redemption 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, among other things, 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. He tempted 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, 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, better to 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.
But 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 holy will above one’s created will at every moment. Jesus did not follow this path of sin proposed by Satan. He chose not only to perfectly fulfill the Father’s will regarding what he was to do during his life and mission, but H also chose 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 re-ask 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.”
And we have the sure hope that this can always be done, that victory is always possible for us because Jesus does not allow us to be tempted beyond our strength when empowered by His grace to enable us to triumph. This was the message of Paul who speaking of the abundance of Christ’s grace, assured us of this: “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.” We come to reign with Christ by conquering temptation and sin in our own lives. That is our victory and that will be our joy, forever, Amen.