Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Temptation in the Desert, Part 1

Author's Note: This was originally given as a homily for my classmates, the main points at least. It was meant to be for last Sunday's readings (first Sunday of Lent). I was surprised by the positive feedback despite my own self-criticism. I decided to formalize this a little and organize it as I had originally intended. 

I also decided to split this up into two parts. First, because if I didn't it would be somewhat long, and secondly, because I felt that there might be too much information given out at once. Enjoy, and please leave comments and feedback if possible! ~Matt

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Christ conquering the devil, putting Satan to shame, and his strength to resist temptation. We often associate the Gospel passage of Jesus in the desert with such notions and not incorrectly. What I propose, however, is to look at this passage in a different way. I will not take this passage as simply a display of Christ's power but rather show how this story in Scripture is a warning and a model for each and every one of us. The season of Lent is a time where we are led into the desert by the Spirit, if we choose to follow Him.

In order to understand Jesus' temptation we must better understand ourselves. In order to understand ourselves we must look at ourselves, not with eyes alone but with our hearts. I hope to facilitate this 'turning toward ourselves' with the following reflection.


The Desert

Some of us are often accustomed to believe that when Scripture or an early text mentions a desert that it's an uninhabitable wasteland. If a hermit were to go to an uninhabitable place, or Christ for that matter, he would surely die. A desert is, as part of the name implies, deserted. Another apt name that describes the desert is desolate, that is devoid of people. A desert was often considered a place apart from society, from community, and from people. It was here that Jesus went. He went in order to be alone.

The desert is a place of silence. When man enters the desert he has no one left to confront but himself. In silence, fasting, and prayer man removes everything that stands before him. The same is true with ourselves. We obstruct our vision of ourselves with noise, with indulgence, and with idle amusements. But, as Augustine said, 'Lord, you turned me around so I could look at myself in all my wretchedness and sin. Even when I tried to turn myself away from my faults you were there to constantly bring me back so I might look upon my sin and hate it' (cf. Augustine's Confessions, Bk. VIII, ch. 7, sec. 16).

Jesus went into the desert before he began his public ministry. He went into the desert to discern the Father's will for him. Here he was tempted, and here he teaches us.


Our Desert

In another manner the desert that Jesus enters is our own desert, the desert of humanity. Recall that the desert is not devoid of life but rather it is a place of simplistic life, straining to survive. Our humanity too is not devoid of goodness but on its own expresses goodness weakly and imperfectly. Christ, the fullness of creation and the wellspring of life, enters the emptiness of the desert.

The devil comes to tempt Jesus because he has put everything else aside in order to be with himself and the Father. The devil often contents himself on our own occupations: we distract ourselves from God and self with food, sex, television, friends, and an array of other things. The devil would rather have us distract ourselves. It is only when we grow closer to God that he visits that person.

The desert, furthermore, is an image of wandering. The famous example being Moses and the Jews wandering in the desert for a very long time. But reflect further that the Jews wandered in the desert so as to reach the Promised Land. The desert was a passageway. Many languished and perished in the desert, pulled equally by their desire to return to Egypt and reach the Promised Land (cf. Ex 16:3). Many did not want to reach the destination promised to them and thus wandered forever.

The devil desires that mankind wander in the desert of their own desires. The “Promised Land” is union with God. When our gaze is turned towards the eternal sun we transform our wandering. When we look to God, and the Cross, our time in the desert is a pilgrimage. When we satisfy ourselves merely with our desires we wander forever. We are all in the desert of our own desires, fears, and insecurities.

Is there a way out? The three temptations of Christ correspond to our the temptations we will experience in a life of faith. Though Christ is our example and strength, He calls us to emulate his actions—not in a literal-physical way, but a literal-spiritual way. For example: where Christ could go without food for 40 days, not all of us could. But if we have some attachment, some habit, or something that keeps us from God we are asked, as best as we are able, to give it up for these 40 days of Lent. Perhaps when Lent ends we continue the discipline we formed for ourselves.

Next time we shall look at the three temptations the devil presented to Jesus, what they mean, how Jesus overcame them, and the lesson we can learn from it.