The devil must have been delighted to get Jesus out into thatdesert. Everything must have seemed to be going according to satanicplan. For the devil, everything is always about himself. His self-obsessioncaused his own fall from grace. His pride got him tossed from heaven.Famously, there is no “we” in hell. Everything there is “I” writ large. Thedevil’s greatest triumph happened when he convinced Adam and Eve torenounce their relationship with God, and exalt themselves. Now, theultimate individualist is trying the same tactic on the Son of God.
The idea is to trick Our Lord into believing that he, Jesus, exists forhis own sake, and out in the desert, all the conditions appear to favor thetempter. First and foremost, Jesus is alone. He is isolated from all thepeople he knows and loves. Under the circumstances, it would be naturalfor him to think of himself first. Second, he is suffering terrible hungerand thirst. His human nature has to be crying out for the food and drinkhe needs so badly in that moment. His body has to be telling him, “Rightnow the only thing that matters is what I need. Yes, by all means, turnsome stones into bread!” The devil tries to extend that entirely naturalfocus on the self to other things that our human nature instinctivelycraves – power and glory: “Rule all the kingdoms of the earth. Be borneup by angels.”
Jesus successfully resists temptation by doing what Adam and Evefailed to do. He resolutely puts his relationship with his Heavenly Fatherbefore all else. He expresses his resolution in the words of Scripture:”It is written: You shall worship the Lord, your God and him alone shall youserve. You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.” And Jesus’victory over the temptation to exult himself is manifested in the titles bywhich we know him: Son of God: relationship, Our Lord: relationship, Sonof Man, Christ, Savior: relationship, relationship, relationship.
In our first reading today, Moses describes how the faithful shouldconduct themselves when they participate in the rites and sacrifices thatwould be central to temple worship. In words that sound remarkably likea description of what happens when members of the congregation bringup the gifts before the Eucharistic prayer at Mass, Moses decrees “Thepriest shall receive the basket from you and shall set it in front of thealtar of the LORD your God.” It is moving to notice how little things havechanged, in this respect, since the earliest days of the relationshipbetween God and God’s people. For thousands of years, innumerablebaskets of offerings have been handed to numberless priests by countlessindividuals to be placed before the altar of the same God, who knows andloves each an every one of them by name.
Of course, the people who present the bread and the wine and thebasket to the priest are not acting simply on their own behalf. Theyrepresent all those who have gathered in worship and ultimately, thewhole people of God. This is something else that has not changed, as isevident when we consider the rest of Moses’ instructions to the faithful.Those who are presenting the basket of offerings are to do so in thecontext of the history of God’s relationship with the entire people. Hetells them to say, “When the Egyptians maltreated and oppressed uswecried to the LORDand he brought us out of Egyptand he gave us thisland flowing with milk and honey. Therefore, I have now brought you thefirst fruitsof the soil which you, O LORD, have given me.” So, thepresentation of that basket has always ultimately been not somethingthat I do, but something that we do. And so it is with the life of faith,and so it is with Lent.
Lent is a season in which we resolve to give up for Christ’s sake,pleasures that we could otherwise easily enjoy, and perform acts ofcharity that we could otherwise easily avoid. So, in a sense, in Lent wedwell, for a while, in the desert. In that desert we will be tempted togratify ourselves at the expense of resolutions we have made for love ofChrist. In our own little way, we will be tempted as Jesus was, to makeour desires and ourselves the center of our world. We’ll be tempted tochoose ourselves over our relationship with God.
But if we read our Gospel closely, we learn that it was the Spirit,not the devil, who led Christ into the desert. It is the same Spirit wholeads us into Lent. Lent is a teacher. It teaches us the futility ofbelieving that we in our littleness and incompleteness can make it on ourown. It teaches us that we are never really alone. We are sustained atevery moment by a rich tapestry of relationships with one another andwith God that embraces the person sitting next to you in the pew, andextends all the way back to Mount Sinai and beyond. It teaches us toreach past the temptation to be self-sufficient, to one another and toGod. Focusing on ourselves is death; focusing on Christ-in-one another is
the way, the truth, and life.
Rev. Charles B. Gordon, C.S.C., is co-director of the Garaventa Center for Catholic Intellectual Life and American Culture at the University of Portland. He writes and records a regular blog called “Fractio Verbi.”