Readings: Genesis 2:7-9; 3:1-7; Psalm 51, R. Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned.; Romans 5:12-19 Or Romans 5:12, 17-19 Gospel: Matthew 4:1-11
Jesus’ fasting and praying in solitude in the desert for 40 days gives us a powerful picture of our experience of the 40 days of our Lenten journey. In the Gospel for the Ash Wednesday Mass, Jesus talked about the three disciplines of Lent, which are the pillars of religious practice or a religious life. These are almsgiving, prayer and fasting.
The temptations Jesus faced at the end of 40 days give us an equally important lesson in spiritual and religious life. While each temptation represents a specific struggle between good and evil in us, we will reflect on the temptations as a whole.
One important note on this episode in Jesus’ life: Some scripture scholars say that whenever we have a story of an inner experience of Jesus, such as this one of his temptations and the Agony in the Garden, Jesus himself must have shared this experience with his disciples for the narrative to have the details of his interior spiritual experience.
In a sense, this is a very important episode in the life of Jesus. We can consider the story of his temptations and the Agony in the Garden as bookends. The former is his spiritual “retreat” in preparation for his ministry, the beginning of his journey to fulfill his mission, and the latter is his “vigil” on the eve of fulfilling his mission—the most definitive “mission accomplished.”
Distractions to our mission
St. Ignatius of Loyola has three points about temptations or distractions of the evil spirit that are worth reflecting on.
One, whenever we are coming close to doing God’s will, the evil spirit sends everything and anything to stop us or discourage us. Two, the evil spirit hits us where it matters most, a weakness that leaves us vulnerable. Three, the evil spirit’s temptations, its lure, are very attractive.
I have seen this time and again: Whenever a person realizes his/her direction toward doing what God wants him/her to do, the first thing that meets this realization is doubt that comes in questioning: “Can I really do this?” “Ano ang karapatan kong gawin ‘to?”
This now becomes closely linked to the second strategy of the evil spirit, hitting us where it counts, our weakness. Often this is a trauma, an insecurity, a fear that paralyzes us dead in our tracks, just when the grace of healing and discovering our mission seems to bless us.
The third strategy is to make it attractive. St. Ignatius calls this the evil spirit disguised as the “angel of light.” He reminds us the evil spirits are fallen angels and can fake feelings of consolation.
In each of the three strategies, I recall my own experiences. I can picture the faces and the body language of people who have shared their experience of these with me. The evil spirit is insidious, absolutely cunning, and shows no mercy once we give in to temptation.
In the story of Jesus, he gives us one antidote. In each of the three temptations, we see a legitimate human need. This is why someone of lesser moral fiber and spiritual power can easily be deceived by the seemingly “harmless” temptation. Jesus simply takes the higher ground, the greater truth to counter each temptation.
We see this now more than ever. Think “fake news” and how many of us, myself included, fall victim to it. Very insidious indeed.
It plays on our penchant for the controversial, our love for conspiracy theories, and so many other vulnerabilities. Before we know it, it deadens our sense of integrity and fidelity to the truth.
In Scott Peck’s thoughts, people of the lie eventually truly believe their lie is the truth. “Death of Truth,” Michiko Kakutani’s brilliant 2018 book, clearly traces the decline of adherence to facts, data and evidence, and how once debunked ideologies and discredited conspiracy theories are resurrected.
She points to social media, television, literature, politics and event academe as contributing to this decline and “gathering storm” that will tear at the very fabric of our moral compass.
In our present situation, the story in today’s Gospel, Jesus’ 40 days of prayer and fasting, the temptations that meet him as he begins his ministry, and how he met these and vanquished them with the truth, gives us much hope.
The greatest hope is that we, like Jesus, can have the freedom to choose to be faithful to the truth and to overcome evil and all temptations by the evil spirit with the truth. And the truth we journey toward this Lent is the central mystery of our faith: “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” —CONTRIBUTED