A civilised age is more exposed to subtle sins than a rude age. This is because it is more fertile in excuses and evasions. It can defend error and hence can blind the eyes of those who have not very careful consciences. It makes error plausible, it can make vice look like virtue. It dignifies sin by fine names; it calls avarice proper care of one’s family or industry; it calls pride independence; it calls ambition greatness of mind; resentment it calls proper spirit and sense of honour and the like. Such is our age and hence our self- denial must be very different from what was necessary for a rude age. The readings for this first Sunday of Lent bring to the fore the reality of sin and its destructive consequences. However, Jesus gives us hope; the hope of overcoming sin.
The first reading of today comes from the Priestly version of the flood story. This Priestly account speaks of the Divine Covenant as the outcome of the flood. God’s covenant with Noah is distinguished from other Old Testament covenants in that it is made not with Israel only but with the entire human race. In this covenant, God undertakes never again to destroy the earth by a flood. This is to prefigure the universalism of God’s salvation. It is God’s will ultimately not to destroy the earth but to redeem it. The point of this reading today as the Second reading indicates lies in the fact that Noah’s flood is treated in Christian thought and already in the New Testament as a type of baptism.
The Gospel reading for this First Sunday of Lent presents Jesus to us as the fulfillment of the covenant God made with Noah and brings us two questions. The first question is, “Why was Jesus tempted by the devil? Was he not the Son of God, consubstantial with the Father, God from God, light from light? Why should Jesus have to struggle with the wiles of the evil one?”
Well, Jesus was tempted by the devil for the same reason that he was baptized by John: because he was a human being. When Jesus came from Nazareth to be baptized in the Jordan by John, it was in order to associate himself with the religious currents of His time. He did not need the remission of sin as the others did who came to John for Baptism. Jesus was sinless, but he was human, and he wanted to be seen and known as sharing the human experiences of ordinary men and women. Insofar as it was possible for him, Jesus wanted to be just like everybody else. That is why he shared in the Baptism of John.
And, that’s also why Jesus allowed himself to be tempted by Satan. Every human being has experienced the lure of evil. Every human being has been invited to turn his or her back to God and walk the path of self-indulgence and arrogance that Adam and Eve opened up for their descendants. One would not really be human if one had never had any contact whatsoever with the attractiveness of sin. That is why Jesus went off to the desert: to give the devil his chance, to experience the appeal of evil that infects every human being.
The second question that this reading raises is about us. Why does the Church give us the narrative of the temptation of Jesus every year on the First Sunday of Lent? One would think that there might be some other aspect of Jesus’ life that would be more appropriate for the beginning of the penitential season—perhaps His Baptism, or Jesus’ teaching about the need for loving our neighbor? No, what the Church is teaching us here is that, during Lent, we are supposed to do the same thing Jesus did; that is, we are supposed to go apart from our ordinary life and face up to the evil that threatens us. We are supposed to acknowledge that the devil is after us and that we need to respond and react to the devil’s overtures.
The temptations that threaten us do not come in the same lurid forms in which Matthew and Luke show us the temptations of Jesus, but Jesus’ temptations and ours are basically the same. We are all tempted to comfort, not the ordinary comfort that God means us to have, but the comfort that we achieve through selfishness and indulgence. We are all tempted to success, to be somebody, no matter what the cost. We are all tempted to power: to run things, to run people, to be in charge. These are basic human desires, desires that we are inclined to answer at any cost, no matter what it takes. These are inclinations that we need to be aware of; inclinations that we need to confront.
By giving us the narrative of Jesus’ temptations at the beginning of each Lent, the Church is calling us to come to grips with the temptations that afflict each one of us. Lent is supposed to be a kind of desert that we enter each year, a place where we face up to the evil that afflicts us from outside us as well as the evil that afflicts us from inside.
Dealing with our sinfulness is not something we take on gladly; it is not something we do with enthusiasm. To admit that there is evil in our lives is already distasteful. To try to eradicate it is harder still. Yet unless we are realistic about our condition, we will remain detached from the life that the Lord intends us to live; we will remain weakened in our sharing in the life of Christ.
Unlike Jesus, we are sinners. We have given in, in great things or small, to the self destructive attractions that the devil presented to Jesus. We need to acknowledge that and do something about it.
We are all among the wild beasts like Jesus was in the wilderness. But just as Jesus was in the wilderness in order to experience our full humanity, so also Jesus will be with us as we strive to come to grips with the same kinds of temptations that he endured.
In sum, being a Catholic Christian believer involves living the life of Christ. During Lent the Church invites us to live with Jesus in his desert experience, to undergo trial with him and to come out of the desert at the end, ready to share a time of fulfillment with him in the kingdom of God.