On Ash Wednesday you and I entered the Holy Season of Lent in which we begin our journey up to Jerusalem with Jesus. Behold we go up to Jerusalem. (St. Luke xviii. 31) We are invited to go up to the holy city of Jewish Kings. We are invited to go up to the City of Man in order to discover what its citizens do to the Love of God in the flesh. We are called to study, ponder, and investigate the unusual life of this man Jesus, who claimed to the Son of God. In this holy season we pray that our eyes may be opened to the Divine love working its way into the redemption of the world through Him. We need to make this journey because communion with God is about an ongoing intensification and enhancement of belief in Jesus Christ and our relation to Him. We travel with Jesus in order to uncover in Him the Divine desire to save us through His suffering and death.
But what is the nature of this desire that leads to Jesus’ suffering and death? We begin to learn something about it this morning as we go into the wilderness with Him. The desert or wilderness is a symbol of man’s alienation from God. But this alienation was not created. God made man out of nothing, and promised him life in the Garden of Eden if Goodness alone would be known and embraced. The garden was full of all potential procreant being and knowledge that could generate man’s perfection. But man, in Adam, chose to contrive a world without the rule and governance of God’s goodness and truth. Man desired to judge what was good and what was evil for himself. And so before he was exiled and banished from the Garden externally and physically, his soul had gone into exile inwardly and spiritually. Choosing the absence of God’s rule means exiling the self spiritually from Goodness. The absence of Goodness is evil. Man chose it and couldn’t handle it. But God, who never forces himself on a rational and free-willing creature, allowed man to reap the rewards of his own sin. In choosing to disobey God man exiles himself and must relate to his Maker distantly and remotely, and with suffering and death.
Jesus Christ desires to enter into the wasteland and wilderness of the human predicament in order to carry all men back to God and his Goodness. So God’s love in Jesus Christ identifies with man not only in conception, birth, infancy, childhood, and adolescence. God’s love identifies also with the temptations that the devil brings to the adult Adam in spiritual alienation from God. That alienation can be confronted only in the solitary isolation of the desert. So we read: Then was Jesus led up of the spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil. And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was afterward an hungred. (St. Matthew iv. 1,2) The Spirit leads Jesus because as St. Thomas Aquinas says, Christ wished to strengthen us against temptation, warn us that no man is safe or free from temptation, and to give us a way to overcome temptations through confidence in His mercy. (Summary, Summa…iii. xli. 1)
And so God’s love in the flesh will be tested and tried with every man’s temptation. My son, if thou come to serve the Lord, prepare thy soul for temptation. Set thy heart aright, and constantly endure. (Ecclus. 2. 1) Jesus is tempted to deny the redemption of human life that God’s love in Him desired. And when the tempter came to him, he said, If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread. (St. Matthew 4. 3) God’s Love in the flesh, is, after all, in the flesh. Jesus the man is exhausted, physically spent, and desperately hungry. The Devil, who desires to divide and separate, tempts Him then to direct Divine Love to the satisfaction of earthly hunger. But being the Son of God in the flesh means that Jesus is first and foremost God’s Son. Blessed are they that do hunger and thirst after righteousness. (St. Matthew 5.6) Jesus desires to save all men by living first to God through suffering and dying to Himself. He knows that, It is the Spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing. (St. John 6. 63) Unity and communion with God begin with spiritual obedience. Earthly human life can be reconciled to God in the time of temptation only through immediate recourse to the soul’s good. Jesus is tempted to become the broken bread and the poured out wine that makes men richer without making them holier. (F. Sheen, Life of Christ, p.66) Man shall not live by bread alone, Jesus retorts, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God. (St. Matthew 4.4) Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto thee. (St. Matthew 6. 33)
The devil will not give up this easily. If he cannot divide Jesus’ earthly appetite from His Divine nourishment with bread as he did with Eve and the forbidden fruit, then he will play upon the vanity of His spirit. Then the devil taketh him up into the holy city, and setteth him on a pinnacle of the temple, And saith unto him, If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down: for it is written, He shall give his angels charge concerning thee: and in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone. (St. Matthew 5. 6) If the pull of earthly appetite cannot bring Jesus down, perhaps the Divine love and favor can raise Him up in martyrdom. By throwing Himself down from the pinnacle of the Temple Jesus can reveal spiritual glory. If Jesus is determined that heavenly food and nourishment should govern Him, let the Word of God be revealed through self-sacrifice. Jesus is tempted to use Divine and miraculous powers to rescue human nature. God rules nature, and now Jesus is tempted to prove it. Human nature that sacrifices itself to God’s will is always tempted to vainglorious shows and displays of asceticism. Narcissist showmanship has been the temptation of many a Christian. Cast thyself down, the devil exclaims. Prove to us how pure you are! Jesus responds, It is written again, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.(St. Matthew 4. 7) We will fall into the hands of the Lord, and not into the hands of men: for as His majesty is, so is His mercy. (Ecclus. 2.18) Jesus is Love in the flesh. Love’s presence in the human nature of Jesus needs no miracles and wonders to prove itself. Jesus is provoked to become broken bread and poured out wine that divides itself from earthly human nature and works magic on men’s souls as a new age healer. But the Love of God in Him is the persistent obedience that unites human nature with God, inwardly and spiritually. There will be time enough for miracles. But the greatest miracle will be the visible and perceivable Love that persists, in the flesh, through suffering, into death, and beyond. Then what is hidden and concealed shall be seen and known to all. Behold the man, (St. John 19. 5), Pilate will say. And yet, Truly this man was the Son of God, a Roman soldier will then proclaim.
Still the devil does not let up. Jesus has been provoked to idolatrize the body and then the soul. Now the devil will remind Jesus that He is the Word of God through whom all things were made. Again, the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them; And saith unto him, All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me. (St. Matthew 4. 8,9) Jesus is tempted to sever himself from the human body and soul and its redemption altogether. But Jesus is Love in the flesh. The love of God in this man’s heart has come down from Heaven to redeem the whole human being. The devil tempts Jesus to abandon His manhood and be as God and yet apart from God. This is the temptation to sever Himself from creation and God, and to be the sole measure of all things. It is the temptation to know as God knows, and yet to steal that knowledge for the sake of the self alone. Romano Guardini imagines Satan asking, What are you going to do with all your greatness O Word of God? Squander it on the patriness of the poor or the stuffiness of the pious? (The Lord, 30) Jesus responds definitively, Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve. (St. Matthew 4. 10)
Then the devil leaveth him, and, behold, angels came and ministered unto him. (St. Matthew iv. 11) Jesus submits His earthly hunger to the Father’s Word and Will as the body is tamed by the soul. Jesus overcomes the soul’s vainglorious self-conscious holiness by subjecting His soul to the Holy Spirit. Jesus is conjoined to the Everlasting Word and so by the Holy Spirit will not abandon but will redeem the whole of human nature. And so in the barrenness of the desert, in the space and place of struggle with temptation, a new clarity and vision emerges. We come to see that all of human nature is joined to God’s will in the one Person of Jesus Christ. We begin to see that if the whole of human nature is to be redeemed and saved, the whole of humanity must suffer and die to itself perfectly in Jesus Christ.
We do well to remember that it is in Christ’s human nature that the devil is defeated. St. Thomas tells us that Christ resisted all temptations by quoting the authority of the Law, not by enforcing His power, ‘so as to give more honor to His human nature and a greater punishment to His adversary, since the foe of the human race was vanquished, not as by God, but as by man’, as St. Pope Leo says. (Summa, III, xli. iv. contr.) In His human nature Christ is tempted to sever Himself from the Divine desire to save us. Yet His Human Nature, moved by His Divine Passion, will bear our griefs and carry our sorrows, will be wounded for our transgressions…and bruised for our iniquities, that by his stripes we [might be] healed. (Is. liii. 4) So the devil vanishes, and Christ quietly and humbly walks down from the mountain, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, very God and very Man, clothed completely in our frail human flesh determined to wear it completely into suffering, death, and beyond because of perfect love. Amen.