by f. Luis CASASUS, General Superior of the men’s branch of the Idente missionaries.
New York/Paris, February 21, 2021. | First Sunday of Lent.
Book of Genesis 9: 8-15; First Letter of Peter 3: 18-22; Saint Mark 1: 12-15.
The story of the temptation of Jesus in the desert is rather short and brief in the account of Mark.
Noah had flood, Jesus had desert. The former faced the threat of drowning, the latter the peril of thirst. Too much water or no water, abundance or scarcity. We could be tempted when we have everything or when we have nothing.
We must understand what temptation is because sometimes we use this word in an informal way, for example, when we say that chocolate chip cookies are tempting.
Let us remember that in our ascetical life, understood as a spiritual combat, we encounter three enemies that continually exert their powerful influences- namely, concupiscence, the world and the devil.
Concupiscence, man’s first spiritual enemy, is the foe we carry within us. St. John describes a three-fold concupiscence: the concupiscence of the flesh, the eyes, and the pride of life (1 John 2:16).
The world seduces us by holding up maxims directly opposed to the Gospel. Vice is thus made attractive by being concealed beneath the guise of what are often called innocent fashions and amusements. The world also seduces us through its many perverse examples.
Certainly, all three enemies are related. The world, together with our concupiscence, opposes the Spirit of the Gospel, strengthening our attachments from within and from without.
And the devil, of course, skillfully uses all of that. Satan means “the adversary.” Many would have us believe today that the “prince of this world” is nothing more than a vestigial piece of folklore, something that is unacceptable to mature faith. Of the devil, however, Pope Benedict XVI has stated: Whatever the less discerning theologians may say, the devil, as far as Christian belief is concerned, is a puzzling but real, personal and not merely symbolical presence (The Ratzinger Report, 1985).
Our battle is not against human forces but against principalities and powers, the rulers of this world of darkness, the evil spirits in regions above (Eph 6: 12).
The essence of temptation is the invitation to live independently of God. With his simple and accurate way of speaking, Pope Francis confirmed it in this way: Temptations lead you to hide from the Lord, and you go off with your fault, with your sin, with your corruption, far from the Lord.
Temptation tries to propose alternatives to God’s way, suggesting there is no problem, that God will forgive us, or that something is not a sin.
In fact, the First Reading refers to God’s effort at making another new covenant with us, symbolized by the rainbow. Men had turned away from the divine will and, once again, Providence seeks a way to re-establish the unity of the Creator and his children.
He made a covenant with Noah. The sign of the covenant was the rainbow. This was the first of several covenants God will make.
Later, God made a covenant with Abraham and renewed it with his descendants. God made a covenant with Moses and the Israelites, who became his chosen people. For Abraham, the sign of the covenant was circumcision. With Moses the sign was the Ten Commandments.
Human beings have again and again broken the covenant. Through the prophets, God said that he would established a final covenant with humanity. That covenant was sealed by the blood of Christ on the cross. This is the powerful message of today’s Second Reading: Jesus communicates to the church the Spirit of Life. He makes the water of baptism capable to destroy the power of sin and death and to rise again to new life.
During Lent we are called to remember, to reconnect and to renew our covenant with God.
The devil’s action is characterized by a direct opposition to God. Although in a more or less subtle way, he pushes us in a direction contrary to something explicitly indicated by God. This is reflected in the narrative of Eve and Adam, or in the temptations of Christ, described in more detail in Mt 5.
This is the devil’s task of division: to seek division within the ascetic, his separation from the superior or the community and finally, his estrangement from God.
In his Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius affirms that one can especially suspect the devil’s influence if the temptation casts the soul into deep and prolonged turmoil; if it excites the desire for the spectacular, for strange and conspicuous mortifications, and particularly if it induces a strong inclination to be silent about the whole affair with our spiritual director and to distrust our superiors.
We can help those who do not believe in the devil, or those who do not take into account his corrosive action in our spiritual life, by making them see that temptation has a personality, it is not a force that obeys a simple law, biological or any other type of law. The personality manifests itself in many ways, among them the intention and the way of acting. In the case of the devil, the intention is to separate and the way of acting is lying.
Indeed, when we are victims of concupiscence or the attractions of the world, the devil exploits it by pushing us to hide it, to play it down or to make us see it as something insurmountable, invincible and impossible to forgive.
If we listen to the testimony of the saints, and also look at our own fortunate or unfortunate experience, we see conclusively that prayer, the sacraments and the Word of God are the most powerful antidotes to temptation.
Why is this so?
Many explanations can be given, especially by looking at the prayer life of Jesus, his way of opposing the word of God to temptation and his concern to give us the sacraments as an antidote to the devil’s action. But it turns out that all this responds adequately to the limitations of our way of being, of our nature. To overcome temptation and many other difficulties, we need to live in a proper perspective. Even modern psychology confirms this.
I am not alone, nor can the moment of temptation be considered isolated from the future, that is the reality. What often happens is that at the moment of temptation we try to hide, like Adam and Eve and also deceive ourselves, pretending that we will NOT be acting against God, that we can serve two masters…even if it is only once.
Temptations come to us because we are open to them. Perhaps we do not want to be delivered from temptation, at least certain ones. Sometimes we are like the little boy who was told by his mother to come straight home from school and not to stop at the basketball court. After school, he decided to carry his ball with him… just in case he was tempted.
The following anecdote illustrates the necessity of not engaging in dialogue, either with words or actions, with temptation:
A teenager had his test for his black belt in Tae-kwon-do. His final test was to fight six guys at once. They circled around him, and the sensei (martial arts master) gave the signal to begin. To everyone’s surprise, the young man quickly attacked the guy standing between himself and the door, and then promptly ran out of the building! The sensei addressed the crowd and said: I know you are all probably thinking that he just ruined it all. But actually, he did exactly what he should have done. There is no shame in realizing that you are outnumbered and outmanned, and doing what you need to do to get away.
That is a powerful lesson for you and me when it comes to temptation. The best course of action is to do whatever you have to do to remove yourself from the source of temptation!
The Picture of Dorian Gray. In this brilliant novel by Oscar Wilde (1890), a pact with the devil is told in an extremely original way. The fantastic story of Faust (Goethe, 1808) is well known, where the protagonist makes an explicit pact with the person of the devil. But in Wilde’s work, the devil does not appear “in person”, but skillfully uses the qualities of the protagonist, Dorian, and the negative influence of other people to seek a new plan for his life, a kind of eternity on earth, where all pleasures and beauty can be enjoyed without limit.
The story is excellent, because Wilde, a good connoisseur of Christianity… and also of vices, masterfully describes the human ambition to take the place of God, although initially this may seem exaggerated to those who have not reflected on the extent of temptation.
Here is the outline of the novel:
In 1886, in Victorian London, the corrupt Lord Henry Wotton meets the pure Dorian Gray posing for talented painter Basil Hallward. Basil paints Dorian’s portrait and gives the beautiful painting to him, while Henry corrupts his mind and soul, telling him that Dorian should only seek pleasure in life. The young man follows that perverse path. Dorian wishes that his portrait could age instead of him. Throughout the years, Dorian’s friends age while he is still the same, but his picture discloses his evilness and corruptive life. For years, Dorian sows despair and sadness in those he meets, even driving them to death and suicide.
At long last, Dorian ventures to face the painting that is the embodiment of his corrupted soul. Using the same knife with which he had murdered the painter, he stabs his painted figure through the heart. Dorian himself feels the effect of the knife, and collapses, praying for his salvation. Roused by his screams, his houseguests, rush upstairs and find Dorian Gray’s dead body on the floor, now in the form of the hideous creature from the painting. The painting itself, with the knife still protruding from it, has reverted to its original image of the handsome, innocent youth than Dorian once was.
The end of the novel, of course, is devastating and represents the total failure of any attempt to disregard God, ignoring him or, worse, trying to change his plans for ours. For his presence is a constitutive element of us and ignoring him is tantamount to some form of suicide.
Yes, the kingdom of God is at hand. Just as the devil was very close to Jesus in his moments of preparation for his mission, the angels accompanied him and served him. Let us not believe that the angels are far from us. Surely, they are discreetly behind every moment when we feel closer to God…without knowing why. But, surely, it happens to us just as it did to Christ in the desert: we are being prepared for another new stage of our mission.