Today Jesus is driven by the Holy Spirit into the desert, and there he is for forty days, tempted by Satan. It’s a mysterious episode: on the edge of human experience, as it were; liminal, marginal, fringe.
The first striking thing is that it happens immediately after Jesus has been baptized by John in the River Jordan, and before he begins his public life. Before he does anything else, before he begins to preach and make disciples and heal and exorcise, the Holy Spirit gives him this desert experience. Before any of this, he has to face the devil, naked as it were, head-on, in solitary combat, the son of David facing the original Goliath. He has to be tried, tested, tempted, sifted, proved. Being sinless, he didn’t need John’s baptism, but he deliberately went down under the water as a sign of his sharing in human experience where life’s waters sometimes overwhelm us. Now, deliberately, he goes into another hard place: a desert, hunger, solitude and struggle, combat, temptation. He shares the drama of human life. It’s said elsewhere in the New Testament: ‘we do not have a high priest unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin’ (Heb 4:15).
Let’s go a little deeper. Who tests and tempts him? Satan. This dark, biblical figure. The ‘adversary’, opponent, enemy. The one who ‘throws things across [our] path’ – the meaning of the word ‘devil’. False accusations are his trademark. Jesus calls him a ‘liar and the father of lies’ (Jn 8:44). He is a ‘seductive voice’ (CCC 391). He tempts, he lures, he thwarts. He deludes (cf. 2 Thess 2:11). Jesus even calls him ‘a murderer’, literally ‘man-killer’ (Jn 8:44). According to St Peter, he prowls around like a lion seeking who he can eat (1 Pt 5:8). He hates the good, especially good relationships. He’s a fallen angel, a pure spirit, originally good and a creation of God. But he rejected God and his reign, and is mysteriously permitted to act in nature and history – though only, as St Augustine says, like a dog on a chain. It’s hard not to see in human history moments of evil that go beyond the human. Psychiatrists who aren’t entirely blinkered know that at times they are up against something in their afflicted clients beyond mere psychology.
The Gospels and the apostles take him – and his demonic fellows – for real. The Church does too. Pope Francis speaks of him often. Dioceses have exorcists, appointed by the bishop. There is a rite of exorcism, only to be used by those authorized to do so.
And in today’s Gospel, it’s this being, this evil, who approaches our Lord when he’s weak with hunger, and has the temerity to tempt him. In the Gospel of Mark, there are no details of the temptations. In Matthew and Luke, they are spelled out as three: ‘turn the stones into bread’, ‘throw yourself down from the spire of the Temple’, ‘worship me and have the whole world as yours.’ Great souls and great minds have reflected on these, and explored the different forms they take in the history of humanity and the Church, and our own small lives as well. There is much food for thought here. These temptations weren’t just one-offs. They ran through the whole of Jesus’ human life and they run through the whole of human history. Sometimes they’re direct, ‘in our face’. More often, indirect, taking new disguises, dressing themselves up as reasonable, sensible, the obvious way forward, or as noble, heroic, and so on. Shifting sands, flickering lights, slithering snakes.
But the heart of what happened in the desert was this: to divert the incarnate Son of God from his mission, to break his bond of obedience with the Father, and take the Messiahship given him and abuse it for his own gratification: for pleasure, for power, for popularity. It was the temptation to choose another path than the one the Father had allotted him, to go his way, not God’s way. It was the temptation to do what Adam did, to do what the people of Israel often did during their forty years in the desert. The Father has opened up a way for us, too: it’s in the commandments, it’s in the teaching of the Church. It’s Christ himself. It’s in us through our conscience and the Holy Spirit. It flows from our baptism and confirmation. It’s in the obvious circumstances of our lives and the duties that flow from them; in our family relationships, and so on. And alternatives will always suggest themselves. And behind those alternatives, sometimes anyway, is the Evil One. The one who throws things across our path. The seductive voice, the tune on the mobile, the ping in the inbox. We are under threat.
But here’s the Good News: Jesus conquered. He won. He went into the experience for us and he came through it for us. He won for us. Today’s Preface says: ‘by overturning all the snares of the ancient serpent, he taught us to cast out the leaven of malice.’ He did it so simply. He didn’t argue. He just used Scripture, the word of his Father. The word of God wins. And in the end, he said, ‘Be off.’ And the desert had a flash of paradise. He was ‘with the wild beasts’; they were tamed. The angels ministered to him; heaven and earth were back together. At the place where tradition locates the story – if it has a place! – there is a monastery: on the Mount of Temptation, high above Jericho. In other words, prayer wins. Prayer, fasting, almsgiving – in their many senses and their modern forms as well – these are the weapons.
And so the Church today does a wonderful thing. Satan, in one temptation, has the nerve to quote Ps 90. So the liturgy says, Don’t you dare, and takes it back, and puts it on our lips: a Psalm of protection, trust and confidence. It’s used as the Entrance Antiphon and the Communion Antiphon. It’s ours. It’s a Psalm for Lent. It’s a song of peaceful victory.
He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High,
and abides in the shade of the Almighty,
says to the LORD, “My refuge,
my stronghold, my God in whom I trust!”
It is He who will free you from the snare of the fowler,
Who seeks to destroy you;
You will not fear the terror of the night,
nor the arrow that flies by day,
nor the plague that prowls in the darkness,
nor the scourge that lays waste at noon.
Upon you no evil shall fall,
no plague approach where you dwell.
For you has he commanded his angels
to keep you in all your ways.
They shall bear you upon their hands,
lest you strike your foot against a stone.
On the lion and the viper you will tread,
and trample the young lion and the serpent.
Since he clings to me in love, I will free him,
protect him, for he knows my name.
When he calls, I shall answer him, “I am with you”;
I will save him in distress and give him glory.
With length of days I will content him;
I shall let him see my saving power.
(St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, 18 February 2018)