First Sunday of Lent
Homily by Father Alex McAllister SDS
The Gospel for the First Sunday of Lent is always the Temptation of Christ in the Desert. The three years of the liturgical cycle each take their accounts from the different perspectives of Matthew, Mark and Luke. This year we have St Matthew's version.
There are some things in common with all these different versions of the same story, one of these is that Jesus fasted for forty days in the desert. It is from these forty days of fasting that the liturgical season of Lent is derived. If you take out the Sundays, Lent is forty days long and equivalent to Jesus' time in the desert.
It is difficult to know what to make of Christ's temptation since I don't suppose many of us would regard the propositions the Evil One presents to Jesus as very tempting at all. Some thinkers have tried to analyse the temptations and have boiled them down to materialism, hedonism and egoism. But I tend to think that such propositions are an example of over-thinking the problem.
According to me, Jesus, being utterly unique, needs to have his own tailor-made set of temptations. The kinds of things which would tempt us wouldn't tempt Jesus and the kinds of things that might be thought to tempt Jesus definitely wouldn't interest us.
I say ‘the things that might be thought to tempt Jesus' very deliberately because I don't really think that Jesus is susceptible to temptation. And if you read the accounts in the Gospels it doesn't sound as though he was actually really tempted by any of the Devil's proposals. To me what Jesus was presented with sound more like challenges or taunts.
We know, of course, that the Devil was on a loser from the very start. How is it even possible that the Son of God could be tempted by anything in the created order? It is simply illogical. Nevertheless, we need to make some sense of this period of testing that is so well attested to in the Gospels.
I suppose the best way of looking at it is to regard it as a sort of spiritual work-out that Jesus went through. This thought is very much in line with his fast of forty days. It is as if his time in the desert was a sort of spiritual going to the gym. It was a period of time at the beginning of his public ministry during which he sort of stretched his spiritual muscles before launching out on the three-year long period of healing and teaching.
In the desert, Jesus engages in a kind of spiritual joust with the Evil One. It is as if they are fencing but using scripture rather than swords; each one quoting from the scriptures in alternate challenge and counter-challenge.
The only witness to what went on in the desert was Jesus himself, and I suppose that the various accounts drawn up after the event were trying to make sense of whatever Jesus had told his disciples about what happened during those forty days. Maybe that is why St Mark's account is so brief; he simply says that Jesus was in the desert and that he was tempted there.
I certainly don't want to dismiss whatever took place in the desert or to trivialise it in any way, but I think that it is much more relevant for us to direct our attention to our own temptations rather than the temptations that Jesus underwent.
It is particularly good to reflect on how to deal with temptation as we begin Lent. This is the time of year when we make worthy resolutions which we are very quickly tempted to jettison. Lent is therefore inevitably a time during which we struggle with temptation. We might think that the temptations we experience at this time are fairly low-grade such as being tempted to eat sweets or drink alcohol which we had resolved to give up during Lent.
However, I think that the lessons we can learn about how to resist these low-grade temptations are not too different from those we need to deal with much greater temptations such as sexual sin or theft or defamation or other more dangerous temptations.
The first golden rule is to flee temptation whenever it is encountered. So, if you are trying to give up sweets then don't have them around, simply don't go anywhere near them. And whenever you come across people offering you sweets then just walk away.
The same goes for other serious things. In the case of the temptation to visit inappropriate sites on the internet then don't put your computer in the bedroom but rather put it in the living room. If you access the computer in a situation where there are other people around then you are far less likely to visit sites you shouldn't.
So, when an occasion of sin presents itself the key word is to flee. This is the best way to deal with temptation at the outset. The second stage is to resist temptation, but this is much more difficult. Because we have by now come very close to the cause of our temptation, what then begins is a battle of wills. In my view the best way to deal with this is to make a decision. It sounds simple but a decision here means something firm and decisive, an absolute decision you might call it.
If we get involved in a struggle with our desires we will find ourselves in a ‘will I, won't I' situation and the battle will go on within us until we yield to the temptation. Remember the Devil is always around and he is generally much wilier than we could ever be. The answer then is to make a decision, to make a clear and strong rule for your life.
People will generally have made many such decisions during their lives, typically they will be in the form of a rule such as ‘I will never tell a lie'. Decisions such as these are good because they keep you safe; once you have made such a decision, if you do it properly, it will not be difficult to keep. The problem a lot of alcoholics and other addicts face is that they find it very difficult to make a real decision.
The important thing in making a decision is to wait till you are in a rational frame of mind and then weigh up the pros and cons of the situation you are considering and then decide what rule you want to make. And time matters; if you can keep such a resolution for a week then you are much more likely to be able to keep it for a year or much longer.
Never underestimate the power of a decision. ‘I will never tell a lie,' ‘I will never have sex outside marriage,' ‘I will never take something that is not mine,' or ‘I will never speak badly of another person,' these are all examples of rules people make which help to keep them on the straight and narrow.
The third way to resist temptation is to pray; and one of the very best prayers for this is the Our Father and particularly the line in it which says, ‘lead us not in to temptation.' Say this prayer every day and really mean it. You will be surprised at the effect it will have.
Take these three things: flee, decide, pray. Make these three ways of dealing with temptation part of your life and you will be going a long way to resisting the kinds of things that tempt us human beings and lead us in a way that is contrary to the Gospel.