"Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert, to be tempted by the devil. And when He had fasted forty days and forty nights, He was hungry." [Mt. iv]
A fair number of the things we read about our Lord doing in the Gospels are there for our instruction and imitation. For example, when we read of our Lord praying or fasting. Certainly, our Lord was in need of neither of these two activities -- at least, not in the human sense. He was always in direct communication with the Father, and had no need of any additional self discipline or personal sacrifice.
Enduring temptation is another example. It is worthwhile to analyze today’s Gospel to understand the mechanics of temptation. It is the “Spirit” that lead Jesus, “with a capital “S,” even in the Roman Missal where capitalization is very restrained. So the “Spirit” is the Holy Sprit, God Himself with a message for us to be learned by observing our Lord’s behavior.
Our Lord was prepared for this temptation. He was just concluding a forty day fast, much like the fast of Moses or Elias in the Old Testament. No doubt, in our Lord’s case it was filled with constant prayer – one would expect even the “contemplative prayer” that most of us humans find so elusive. For our Lord it was just the natural state of things – communion with His Father.
The devil tempted Him with various pleasures: Food, or physical comfort (loaves of bread); power and wealth (the kingdoms of the world); and personal glory (the ministration of legions of angels). Right away, we might ask ourselves, how can Jesus undergo temptations? Wouldn’t that be sinful? And wouldn’t sin be incompatible with Him being God? The answer, of course, is that temptation, in and of itself, is not sinful, so Jesus’ temptation represents no sin. (We’ll come back to this idea in a moment.) Let it suffice to say that Jesus, in addition to being True God, was also perfectly man in body and soul – He shared with us the needs and wants that are simply part of being a human being.
Our Lord's temptations -- and all temptations consisted of the following elements:
1. Presentation of a good thing. (Food, let us say.)
2. Appreciation that the thing is good. (Gee, that bread smells good!)
3. Perversion of that good in our minds. (Gee, I’d like to eat the whole loaf . . . with maybe a pound of ham in the middle)
4. Savoring of that perverted good. (Yeah! I really would like that!)
5. Consent of the will to the perverse action. (Actually going ahead and eating the loaf – or in this case, working this ostentatious miracle at the suggestion of the devil, in order to obtain the loaf)
In the case of our Lord, the temptation was doomed to be unsuccessful from the beginning:
1. He could see the beauty in things
2. He could appreciate their proper uses
3. He might even think about how material things are sometimes misused; at least He might speculate.
4. BUT, since His will was identical with the eternal will of God, He could not savor any misuse of material creation. That would be a self contradiction.
For human beings, however, that is the point at which temptation becomes sinful – when we allow our minds to focus on how much we would enjoy the evil misuse of some created thing. We are not immune from this as our Lord naturally was.
There are valuable lessons to be learned from this Gospel about how we may successfully resist temptation.
2. Study and understand the good thing that God has given us, to know their true beauty and proper use. (For example: food leading to good health; or wealth bringing about philanthropy; or marriage building a Christian society.)
3. Make an habitual effort to conform your will to the will of God. Ask yourself, “would Jesus do this,” “would Mary do that.” Would I feel comfortable doing this or that in the presence of the Holy Family.
4. In times of temptation, call upon Jesus and Mary. Invoke your guardian angel.
For those of us who are simply human, there is also the matter of avoiding the occasion of sin. Past experience has taught us that we usually get in trouble if we associate with certain persons, go certain places, or do certain things. The occasions of sin are like nouns: persons, places, or things – in this case, they are nouns to be avoided.
Note that some of these things -- indeed most of them -- are things to be done before hand -- not after we are tempted. They are not to be put off. We need to prepare in advance. Again, Lent is the ideal time for this. If we want to spend our eternity with God, enjoying the pleasures of heaven with the angels and the saints, and not suffering the pains of hell with the fallen angels, we need to act now. As the Apostle tells us: "Now is the acceptable time. Behold, now is the day of our salvation."
Make good use of this holy Lent, to prepare for your salvation. To prepare for eternity.