With Sunday’s Gospel of Jesus in the wilderness, tempted by the Devil, the Church reveals the familiar topography of Lent. Even as I say it, I am aware that something within me begins to see the 40-day fast in terms of a confrontation. Jesus versus the Devil. Me versus the world, the flesh and the Devil. It’s going to be tough and I am mentally preparing myself for 40 days of strife.
Jesus’s confrontation in the wilderness is first, one of his own choosing. The evangelist is quite clear that Christ is led by the Spirit ‘‘to be tempted by the Devil”. Jesus is acquiescing freely to the will of his Father and although he goes in a flesh like ours, he is filled with the Spirit.
Put simply, though he is fully human, he does not think of humanity’s strength in the egotistical way we are all too often inclined to, as being highest and most efficient when it needs no other help. His flesh is the same as Adam’s but he does not understand that flesh as Adam did, as somehow inferior or subordinate. He accepts it humbly and joyfully as a capax Dei, a vessel for God to fill.
For us, therefore, it is to start Lent not with some interior sense that we will do our best against a much stronger foe, but more that through our baptismal consecration the Devil is actually coming to us. This is because of his desire to see if the image of God in us will yield to the temptation to be filled with earthly satisfactions.
The image of God in us is also Spirit-led. The Lenten fight is not a lonely test of strength between my power and that of the Devil. It is a combat in which the Lord allows me to be tempted – but only so that I should rely more heavily on him. I should understand that he has already conquered, already redeemed, and I can lay claim to his power precisely by courageously resisting the idea that I am going to be unhappy, lost and unfulfilled if I don’t get everything my appetites try to convince me are the priority.
Until I dare to live for someone other than myself, I will not discover the greater dignity to which I am called: as one who put on a new nature in baptism, not the earthly man, but the heavenly.
It is in this sense that I must imitate Jesus’s days in the Wilderness and take up the fight with and in Him, resisting temptations by having recourse to the word of God and to the bread that comes from heaven; and by identifying with those who have no power.
In their 40 years in the wilderness the Israelites were miraculously fed. They depended on God day by day for their sustenance. Natural hunger led to a radical dependence on the providence and action of God in every moment. This is the deeper, spiritual purpose of the Lenten fast. It is not to deny flesh for the sake of knowing that I have some kind of mastery over it; it is to cultivate in flesh the deeper hunger for salvation, for the bread that comes down from heaven which is Jesus, He who gives the bread which is His flesh, for the life of the world.
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