Lent and the Temptations of Christ
Midway through our life’s journey, I went astray/from the straight road and woke to find myself/alone in a dark wood” (The Inferno, Alighieri)
These lines open The Inferno, the first part of Dante’s beautiful and renowned three-part work, The Divine Comedy. They are lines that many can relate to at various periods of life, the year, the month, week, or even the day. I believe we all, at times, are suddenly struck by moments of self-knowledge or clarity that shake us from a seeming slumber. These moments can be surprising at least and deeply discouraging at worst. We can feel suddenly powerless, as though we have been wandering about aimlessly and without agency up to that moment of realization. However, considered rightly, these uncomfortable disillusionments really are blessings. They are opportunities for us to reassess our course and adjust it—to rediscover our need for God’s guidance and grace. We are constantly assailed by temptation. The trick is to learn to recognize these assailments and fortify ourselves with grace—to be vigilant, to “watch and pray” that we “may not enter into temptation.” If we can succeed in this (and nothing is impossible with God), we will not need to be painfully jolted out of our complacency as often. Thankfully, as usual, our Lord has not commanded us to be vigilant without providing a model for us. So today, we will consider Matthew’s telling of the Temptation of Our Lord in the Desert (Matt 4:1-11)—how it teaches us vigilance and how the season of Lent is a perfect time to begin practicing these lessons.
Temptation and the Enemies of the Soul
Momentarily returning to Dante: soon after his own awakening, Dante comes to the bottom of a hill and, looking up, sees the rising sun on the summit. He is filled with a desire to run toward the light and begins to ascend the hill rapidly, when he is stopped and driven back by three beasts: a leopard, “all tremor and flow/ and gaudy pelt;” a she-wolf, “a starved horror;” and a lion “raging with hunger.” Traditionally, these beasts are considered to symbolize the three different forms of vice that plague us: fraud and vanity (the leopard), incontinence (the she-wolf), and pride and violent ambition (the lion). They can also be linked to the traditional “enemies of the soul:” the world, the flesh, and the devil, respectively. In a similar way, each temptation that Christ encounters in Scripture is aimed at particular vulnerabilities of fallen human nature that line up fairly well to these three classic categories. In this way, Christ instructs us in how to respond to any variety of tempting. Chapter 4 of Matthew’s gospel begins with Christ’s journey into “the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” and continues with a narrative of the three temptations that our Lord undergoes after fasting for forty days and nights. Of course there is so much to be gained from prayerful consideration of these narratives (as is true of all Scripture), but here are some insights for this passage in light of the approaching Lenten season.
The First Temptation
Our Lord’s first temptation can be considered a temptation of the flesh. Having fasted for forty days and forty nights, Scripture tells us that Christ “was hungry.” Enter “the tempter” who says, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread” (Matt 4:3). Our Lord quotes scripture in response, demonstrating His complete trust in God’s providence and provision by stating that “Man shall not live by bread alone.” Here, as St. John Chrysostom points out, Jesus “[shows] that the virtuous man is not compelled even by this tyranny [of the flesh] to do anything that is unseemly…teaching us to obey the devil in nothing.” We too, have very legitimate hungers and desires that arise from our human nature; but our will, informed by prayer and grace, must be the master. Our Lenten fasts and disciplines are great practices for both empowering our will and relocating of our focus away from the demands of the flesh, back toward the demands of the spirit and the spiritual nourishment that we receive from God.
The Second Temptation
In the second temptation, Satan takes Our Lord to Jerusalem and, placing Him on the “pinnacle of the temple,” urges Him to throw Himself down since, “if [He is] the Son of God” He will be born up “lest [He] dash [His] foot against a stone” (Matt. 4:5-6). Here Our Lord’s temptation is one of the world—the need for signs of God’s loving care and for display of our importance. In withstanding this temptation also, Christ “[teaches] us that we must overcome the devil, not by miracles, but by forbearance and long-suffering, and that we should do nothing at all for display and vainglory.” We see how we can be hunted by the leopard and his “gaudy pelt,” moving us to value appearances and show over authentic virtue and relationship with God. Building our trust in God and setting our sense of value more firmly in Him will combat the attacks of vanity and the image of appeal that come from the world and its fallen standards. We are invited to meditate on the true humility of our state during Lent: “Remember, man, that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
The Final Temptation
The final test that Christ faces is one near to the heart of Satan, since it is the test that he himself failed. This is the temptation of power and glory, pride and violent ambition. “Fall down and worship me” the devil commands Our Lord, offering Him “all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor” in exchange for this homage (Matt 4:8-9). Christ now gives us the true key to victory before all temptation: “‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him’” (Matt 4:10). If we can allow our hearts to be formed around this commandment, we will know what vigilance is.
Again, St. John Chrysostom, in his homily on this passage of Matthew, summarizes Christ’s lessons for us in how “to get the better of [Satan]” in temptation: we must respond “in the way which Christ [taught us], by fleeing to God for refuge; and neither to be depressed in famine, as believing in God who is able to feed even with a word; nor amidst we may receive to tempt Him who gave them, but to be content with the glory which is from above, making no account of that which is of men, and on every occasion to despise what is beyond our need. For nothing doth so make us fall under the power of the devil, as longing for more, and loving covetousness.” Lent is a season in which we can consciously seek the wakefulness that will set us, as it sets the character of Dante, in authentic motion toward conversion and God. Conversion of our hearts is not measured by whether we are tempted, but by our response. Let our response, trained by grace and tried in fire and discipline, mirror Christ’s ultimate response to temptation: “Be gone, Satan.” And let this Lent be our time for this training.
Other Works Cited
Alighieri, Dante. Inferno. Trans. Anthony Esolen. Random House, 2002.