Father James Chelich, 1999
“Jesus was led into the desert by the Spirit to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights…” Matthew 4:1-2 “Jesus was led into the desert by the Spirit…” Jesus did not wander into the desert. He is being led, not by a dark or malevolent force but by the the Holy Spirit — the Lord and Giver of Life. Jesus embraces the desert experience peacefully, purposefully, deliberately. This takes place immediately after his baptism. You could say that it flows out of his baptism. You receive the impression that where Jesus is being led and what is about to happen has a purpose. It is as if something needs to take place, something that will effect the direction and course of his life.
“…to be tempted…”
Long ago Saint Anthony, the first and greatest of the Desert Fathers of the Church, said: “Without temptations we cannot be saved.” What he meant was that temptations confront us with choices. They are points along our journey through life where we must choose between good and evil, right and wrong; between that which gives life and that which deals death to the body, soul and spirit. By making these choices we mold our character and set a direction for the next leg of our human journey.
“…by the devil…”
The devil wants see us fall. But more than he wants to see us fall, he wants to see us distance ourselves from God. He would like to see us seal ourselves off completely. His real objective is distance, isolation and death to relationship: with God, with others and with the world around us. The Devil focuses first and foremost on our relationship with God. From our relationship with God we gain the wisdom and strength we need for life-giving relationship with everyone and everything else. Because our relationships with God, with others and with the world around us are organically linked, death to our relationship with God inevitably brings down life-giving relationship with others and with the world around us. Our isolation then becomes complete. This by the way is Hell, the very Hell in which Satan himself is confined. Its isolation is its ultimate torment. There is, however, a curious twist in all this. Every temptation the devil places before us is also an opportunity to root ourselves more deeply in virtue. Actually, every temptation the devil sets before us is a big gamble on his part. In can backfire in either of two ways. First, if the temptation results in our choosing the good, we have placed ourselves more firmly in relationship with God than ever before and molded our character more completely in God’s likeness. Second, if the temptation results in our falling into sin but then, upon coming to our senses, sees us repent and flee into the hands of God, it has only served to drive us into a more trusting relationship with God. Out of repentance we come to God not victorious in virtue but humbled and teachable, ready to yield ourselves more completely to God’s wisdom and strength. Temptation is a risky game for Satan to play. He can win, but he can also lose big, and leave us more devoted to God, resolved to do what is right and alert to what’s up and what’s at stake than ever before.
Our Moral Compass
The Holy Spirit did not lead Jesus into the desert to see if he would fall. It was to allow him to make choices. By making these choices Jesus sets his moral compass as a human being. Jesus was truly human and truly God. As a human being like us he had to face temptations and make choices. These set the moral compass of his humanity. As God, Jesus only had to set the moral compass of his humanity once and it stayed on a true orientation. We are human and not God. We face temptations and make choices. These choices set the moral compass for our humanity. But with the passage of time and the press of the many things that clamor for our attention, our moral compass easily drifts off a true orientation to the good. Our moral compass needs to be reoriented regularly. The ancient Catholic Church recognized this and very early in its history was inspired by the Holy Spirit to reproduce the movement of Jesus into the desert by setting aside a time each year when we would, as individuals and as a Christian community, invite the Holy Spirit to lead us into the desert of our own hearts. We call this time, “Lent”. It is a time for choices.
“…He fasted forty days and forty nights…”
The number forty has a particular significance in the Bible. It rained for forty days and forty nights when the great flood brought an end to a sinful human order and cleared the way for a fresh start for human life. (Genesis 6:5 to 9:17) Moses stayed on the mountain in the desert of Sinai for forty days and forty nights with out food or drink before he received the Commandments from God (Genesis 24:12-18). The Israelites wandered in the desert of Sinai for forty years until an unbelieving generation passed away and a new and faithful one was ready to enter the promised land (Numbers 14;1-35) Forty is a number connected with change and renewal. Fasting is a practice connected with instilling a more complete reliance on God. Where do we turn with all the hungers of our body, soul and spirit?
“Not on bread alone is man to live, but on every utterance that comes from the mouth of God.” Matthew 4:4 Holy Lent
Each year the Holy Spirit leads us into the desert of our hearts, and for forty days God calls us to examine our words, actions and attitudes, and make fresh choices about them. The objective is not only the recognition of our sins but more importantly the choices we are willing to make in the face of them. These choices reorient the the moral compass of our humanity pointing us back in the direction of what is true, good and life-giving. Lent is a movement and a work of the Holy Spirit. It was for Jesus two thousand years ago and it is for us today.
“All of us, gazing on the Lord’s glory, with unveiled faces, are being transformed from glory to glory into His very image by the Lord who is the Spirit.” 2 Corinthians 3:18