Then the devil leaveth him, and, behold, angels came and ministered unto him.
(St. Matthew 4. 11)
On Ash Wednesday you and I entered the Holy Season of Lent in which we began 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 and explore the unusual life of this man Jesus, who claimed to be 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. Jesus calls us forward so that our faith might discover His 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 dessert or wilderness is a symbol of man’s alienation from God. But this alienation was not intended by God at the beginning. God made man out of nothing, and promised him a happy life in the Garden of Eden if only he would obey the rule of God’s goodness. The garden was full of 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. 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 forsaken God inwardly and spiritually. Choosing the absence of God’s rule means spiritual exile 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 through suffering and death.
Jesus Christ desires to enter into the wasteland and wilderness of the man’s exile 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 but also with the temptations that the devil brings to every adult who lives in potential spiritual alienation from God. That alienation can be confronted only in the solitary isolation of the dessert. 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, Jesus Christ, desires to endure the temptation of every man. 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 desires to be fully man and so will be tempted to deny the redemption of human life through God’s love. 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 the Son of God in the Spirit. 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 death to Himself. He knows that It is the Spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing. (St. John 6. 63) Human beings can overcome the temptation to put earthly needs and riches first only by desiring the good of their souls. 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) Jesus will reveal that the Word of God is the only true food and nourishment for the human soul. He desires to become God’s broken bread and the poured out wine. Jesus welcomes us into the Truth that God’s Word provides us with food and real nourishment.
But the devil is determined to undo Christ’s desire. If he cannot conquer Jesus’ hunger for Divine nourishment with earthly bread as he did with Eve and the 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 desire will miraculously lift Him up! By throwing Himself down from the pinnacle of the Temple, Jesus can prove that God is His loving Father. If Jesus is determined that heavenly food and nourishment should govern Him, let Him sacrifice the flesh to the Spirit and thus prove that He is the Son of God. Alright then, deny the human, throw it down into death and let God revive you! Human nature that sacrifices itself ascetically to God’s will is always tempted to vainglorious wonderworking. The Ascetic in every age tends to exaggerate the miraculous. Cast thyself down! the devil exclaims. 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) Love’s presence in the human nature of Jesus needs no signs and wonders to prove that He is the Son of God. Jesus will become God’s broken bread and poured out wine solely on the basis of faithfulness to God. Jesus desires to embrace unmerited suffering and death in order to plant the seed of new life. There will be time enough for miracles. But the greatest miracle will be witnessed in His uninterrupted desire to carry human nature through death into new life. To do so, He will teach us that the soul must honor and uplift the body. The Centurion standing at the foot of the Cross will see that the one lifted up in death is the Messiah: Truly this man was the Son of God.
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 now to sever Himself from the human body and soul 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, from the earth’s highest point and yet apart from God. Jesus is tempted to sever Himself completely from God and to become the sole measure of all things. It is the temptation to know as God knows by His 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 paltriness 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) Jesus teaches us that the body and soul are made to be ruled and governed by God’s good spirit.
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 potential vainglory by sanctifying the soul in honoring His body. Jesus is God’s Everlasting Word and so by the Holy Spirit the whole man submits to the Father’s will. And so in the barrenness of the desert, in the space and place of struggle with temptation, a new clarity emerges. God has given His angels charge concerning Jesus; they minister to Him only after He has willfully defeated Satan by keeping all of God’s ways. (Ps. xci. 11)
We do well to remember that it is through 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 says ‘yes’ to God. He 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; [He will be] wounded for our transgressions…bruised for our iniquities, that by his stripes we [might be] healed. (Is. liii. 4) Jesus shows the devil and us that what He embraces, He embraces willingly and by reason of His human desire. 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. Temptations will assault throughout Lent. Jesus desires to overcome them in us this holy season. Amen.