5 March [First Sunday in Lent]
Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread." But he answered, "It is written, 'One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'" Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, 'He will command his angels concerning you,' and 'On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'" Jesus said to him, "Again it is written, 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'" Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour; and he said to him, "All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me." Jesus said to him, "Away with you, Satan! for it is written, 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'" Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
A First Communicant, hands joined, white prayer-book, rosette, no front teeth: a very image of innocence. But it is only a moment, soon past. They grow teeth, in every sense. They become teenagers and adults. Yet somehow that early image persists, as if it represented some ideal state of humanity, and to grow up were to fall away from perfection. Whole civilisations have similar dreams of a past Golden Age, but it is never more than a dream.
“People who have not suffered, what do they know?” said Henry Suso in the 14th century. Suffering, in a broad sense, is just experience: in that sense, life is suffering. Life is a crucible of experience in which everything that is not real is burnt away. If Jesus was to be credibly human he had to suffer like us. He was not an eternal First Communicant; he was “made perfect through suffering” (Hebrews 2:1). The words of the Lord, the Psalm says, are “silver from the furnace, seven times refined” (Psalm 11); the Word made flesh was put to the test (“tempted”, in Scriptural language) in the fiery Judean desert.
Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to find out what he was made of. Mark’s gospel puts it more strongly: “the Spirit drove him out into the desert” (1:12). The first temptation was “to turn these stones into loaves of bread.” A hungry man sees bread everywhere. An Indian poet who used to write beautiful poems about the moon lost all his talent when he became impoverished. He saw nothing but chapatti whenever he looked at the moon. Jesus was hungry, but he saw beyond his own hunger; he would become a provider of food for the hungry. (A good man is not tempted by evil but by goodness.) Soon however he saw that this was not exactly what God was asking of him.
The second temptation was to fame. Many false prophets had attempted to attract notice by doing spectacular feats. Jesus countered this by saying, equivalently, “One doesn’t play games with God.”
The third temptation was power. As a Jew he knew what power did to people; every day of his life he saw the Roman Empire at work. He knew that Roman emperors were ‘deified’ - proclaimed gods - after their death; to Jews, who had a profound sense of the unity of God, this practice was an abomination.
Jesus rejected all these possibilities. The gospel text doesn’t tell us at that point what he chose to do, but the rest of his life made it plain. He chose the way of love, which is deep, unspectacular, and powerless.
Every First Communicant is driven into the desert sooner or later and has to face these temptations. The Church at large has to face them and be tested by them. “In the evening of life you will be tested in love,” wrote St John of the Cross. That is the hardest test of all.
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