Today is the first Solemn celebration of Lent. We began our Lenten journey on Ash Wednesday by fasting and abstinence. The Church, as our Mother, entrusts her children to God’s grace and mercy during this most blessed Season of repentance, conversion, penance, prayer and almsgiving. Our Gospel for this Sunday’s Mass sets the tone for our Lenten observances: Jesus is drawn into the desert after His Baptism by John in the Jordan for forty days to be tempted by the devil.
The Forty Days of Lent are rooted in the symbolism of the biblical meaning of ‘40’, which is a time of God’s special care and help for those who are preparing for some special mission or great event. We see this in the story of the flood. Moses was in the desert for forty days in receiving the Ten Commandments. The Israelites wandered in the desert for forty years until they were able to enter the Promised Land. We see the number forty in Elia’s journey to Horeb, of Jonah at Ninive. Most of these accounts are read to us during lent to encourage us. Forty has significance for us today as we keep this time of preparation for the Paschal Mysteries, the suffering, death, resurrection and glorification of the Lord Jesus Christ.
What is temptation? This is very important for us to understand. Temptation is the “attraction, either from outside oneself or from within, to act contrary to right reason the commandments of God (CCC, p.901). It is always important for us to distinguish temptation from sin; the mere attraction, due to concupiscence, or the disordered desires that are the consequence of original sin, is not personal sin. Sin involves choosing to do what is wrong with deliberation and consent. We also distinguish sin into the categories of venial and mortal. Venial sin is the violation of God’s Law in a small matter or committing a sin that is grave objectively but without one or the other conditions of a mortal sin, deliberation and consent. Mortal sin is a freely chosen act that seriously violates God’s Law with proper deliberation.
Saint Thomas Aquinas in the book “Meditations in Lent” cites four reasons for Jesus’ temptation by the devil. First, He willed to be tempted in order to help us in our temptations. Second, to warn us that no matter how holy we may be, we are never outside of the grasp of temptation. Third, to give us an example of how we should overcome temptation. And finally, in order to show His mercy and fill our minds and hearts with confidence.
Jesus willed to be tempted in order to help us fight against our temptations. Just as He freely accepted death, a fate we shall all encounter, we are given the promise of His assistance to battle against the lure of evil. Jesus cites Scripture to the suggestions of the devil; He, as the Word of God, uses the divinely inspired texts to combat the evil that He does not experience from within Himself, since He is True God and humanly perfect. This is to be our example when we are tempted: to reflect upon the will of God, as given to us in Scripture and the teachings of the Church, and call upon His help. Frequent reflection upon SS is important for us that our minds and hearts may be made in the image of Christ. The Apostle Paul in our Epistle today lists the kinds of temptations and sufferings a follower of Christ must be ready to endure: “in much patience, in affliction, in hardship, in calamity, in beating, in jail, in revolt, in labor, in sleeplessness, in fasting, in purity, in knowledge, in forbearance, in kindness, in the Holy Spirit , in charity without pretense, in speaking the truth, in the power of God, with the weapons of righteousness….through dishonor and honor, through infamy and esteem…”
Jesus’ temptations also reveal that no one, no matter how advanced in holiness, is exempt from being tempted. Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta’s letters, recently published, show us how someone who is totally given over to God and His mission can be horribly tempted against faith, hope and even charity. Although hidden from the eyes of others, the interior struggles, especially within the darkness of faith, can be very difficult, even for a holy soul. This keeps us from being presumptuous, overly confident or self-righteous. When we experience temptation in all its allure, we can be compassionate to others, more dependant upon the Lord and learn to be willing to suffer anything rather than offend God and our neighbor.
St. Augustine, as quoted by Saint Thomas, said that “Christ gave himself to the devil to be tempted, that in the matter of our overcoming those same temptations He might be of service not only by his help but by his example too.” And what were these temptations? Materialism; tempting God and idolatry. The temptation to see everything in the light of what we experience with our senses is the materialistic temptation. “Bread” here signifies what our disordered appetites crave: security, love of money, self-reliance apart from God, obsessions with food and drink. Tempting God is a temptation where we place ourselves outside of the reasonable order of things and expect God to rescue us or to change our circumstances. The CCC states: “Tempting God consists in putting his goodness and almighty power to the test by word or deed”. This is a violation of the first commandment. Idolatry comes in many forms. The CCC defines this as “the substitution of some one or thing for God; worshiping a creature…instead of the Creator (p. 883). We can even worship ourselves, our own opinions, prejudices, likes and dislikes to the point where we replace God’s standards with our own. Jesus combats these temptations with the Word of God; the power of truth is ever greater than evil.
Jesus’ victory over these satanic temptations gives us confidence in His mercy. Saint Thomas quotes Saint Paul with this verse from the Epistle to the Hebrews: “For we have not a high priest who cannot have compassion on our infirmities, but one tempted in all things, like as we are, without sin (iv. 15). This is the great message of Divine Mercy; Jesus never abandons us even in the most difficult temptations. He is there with us, helping us, showing us the way.
The beautiful Psalm 90 which is the Tract for this Sunday echoing the words of the Lord Himself in our Gospel should bring us much consolation and hope. “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High shall abide in the shadow of the Almighty. “Say 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…His faithfulness is a buckler and a shield; you will not fear the terror of the night….His love he set on me, so I will rescue him, protect him, for he know my name. When he calls I shall answer: “I am with you.” I will save him in distress and give him glory….I shall let him see my saving power.”
The Eucharistic Mystery is the power of love that vanquishes evil. Our Holy Communion today, whether it is sacramental or spiritual, gives us the very ability to combat evil. The frequent reception of the Sacrament of Penance is a sure means of purification from sin and protection from evil. The chief exorcist of Rome, Fr. Gabriele Amorth, has written that the Sacrament of Penance is more powerful than even the rite of exorcism; the absolution given by the priest is not only a means of forgiveness of sins and an infusion of grace, but a sure protection against evil and the Evil One.
May the holy Mother of God, Mary our Mother, and Her beloved Spouse, terror of demons, assist us in our Lenten journey to Easter. May we know the protection of the Lord’s angels and His mercy and constant help in our time of need.