Perhaps thirty years ago, not long after the Iron Curtain had been pulled back, a young Ukrainian woman visited the monastery of Pluscarden. She was a wee slip of a girl, then. I remember her name. Where is she now? I have no idea. We had, I think, one brief conversation, and from it I learned how dear to the Ukrainian heart is Psalm 90 – the very Psalm we hear today as an Entrance Antiphon, as Responsorial Psalm, as quoted in the Gospel and as Communion Antiphon too. “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High”. A Psalm promising us the sheltering presence of the Lord. How apt for now. If we are looking for a Lenten prayer, looking to do something for those in and leaving Ukraine, we could do worse than say the Psalm.
Images of war and its effects abound at the moment. In today’s Gospel, the account of our Lord’s temptation by the devil, we are reminded of another war. An ancient and perennial war, the war behind all wars, the war between good and evil, between Christ and Satan. A war we cannot afford to lose, and that thanks to our Lord has been won so that we can win it too. Jesus was tempted and overcame the tempter for us.
There’s much to think about here.
“The reason the Son of God appeared”, says St John, “was to destroy the works of the devil” (1 Jn 3:8).
Almost the first thing David, the future king, did after receiving the Spirit through his anointing by the prophet Samuel was to confront and overcome the oppressor of his people, Goliath the Philistine. So in turn our Lord, filled the Holy Spirit after his baptism by John, confronts and defeats the Evil One – for us. Adam and Eve, no sooner created and set in the garden, fall for the lies of the serpent. Today, our Lord takes on this experience and conquers where Adam failed – for us again. No sooner had Israel the Lord made a covenant with Israel in the wilderness at Mount Sinai, after the Exodus, than they turned away to worship the Golden Calf. In the Gospel Jesus enters the wilderness too, experiences what Israel experiences but changes the outcome – for us again. Here is our Lord taking on the human condition, our battles, and coming out the Victor. All of this looks forward to his death, when evil seems to win, and to his resurrection, when the true result is, so to speak, published.
As human beings, and as Christians, we experience temptation. We may have been baptised in water, anointed with the Spirit and freed from the power of the evil one, but we will still be tempted. The Devil has a habit of returning. This is why we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “Lead us not into temptation” – which means both spare us temptation and when it comes give us the discernment and strength not to succumb.
What, exactly, is temptation? I suppose we spontaneously think of its obvious forms: temptation to unchastity or infidelity, to dishonesties of one kind or another, to tell lies to get ourselves out of tight corners, to do others down so as not to lose face. But there’s more to it. Twice the devil says to our Lord, “If you are the Son of God”, do this or that. From the age of 12 at least, our Lord knew the purpose of his life: to be about his Father’s business, to do what his Father wished him to do – for us. This was the core of who he was. This was his identity. This was his truth. And it is, at our level, ours too. We are the children of God, and the Father calls us into his employment. We have a work to do – for others. And so, at root, the temptations that fell on Jesus and that fall on us are the same: to forget who we are, to deviate from the path the Lord has shown us, however obscure or humble it may seem; to embrace another, more immediately alluring, plan. To rewrite the script of our humanity. To play God essentially
The three temptations of Jesus are expressions of this one core temptation. Jesus’ mission was not to turn stones into bread, to solve the problem of world hunger; it was to bring the world the bread of himself. He made that clear at the Last Supper. Jesus’ mission was not to bring about God’s kingdom by political power – he made that clear to Pilate. Jesus’ mission was not to be a celebrity, jumping from parapets to a cheering audience. He didn’t come down from the Cross. Neither is it the mission of the Church, Christ’s Body in history, to fix the economy, or just be an agent of social welfare (even though she will be); it’s to offer a more substantial happiness. It’s not the task of the Church to ride to power on the back of politicians; it’s to allow the love of Christ to shine forth. It’s not the goal of the Church to be popular, to gain as many “likes” as possible; it’s to preach the true Good News. And for each of us too. As God’s beloved children, we can’t put our highest good in a higher income, or in power, or in fame or celebrity. We have been shown a better truth about ourselves. Resisting temptation means not compromising that truth, and putting ourselves again and again into the hands of God whose desire for us is the utmost joy.
Temptations are part of our human and Christian life. They don’t come from God, who tempts no one. They come from the evil around us and our own weakness; from the world, the flesh and the devil. But thanks to our Lord, tempted in all ways like us, but without sin, we have the victory. Thanks to his single-handed combat in the desert, thanks to the humble obedience of his Passion, thanks to the power of his Resurrection and the Spirit within us, thanks to the unity among us, we have the victory. We will get there, as they say. Every Eucharist pledges this. How impressed we are by the courage and unity of the people of Ukraine in their tragic battle, with its echoes of David and Goliath. We needn’t have less spirit ourselves in our Christian combat and the struggles of our lives.
Ps 90 is there to inspire us. God says to us: “His love he set on me, so I will rescue him / protect him for he knows my name. / When he calls, I shall answer: ‘I am with you’. / I will save him in distress and give him glory.”
St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, 6 March 2022