The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered to him. – Mark 1:12-13 RSV CE
Following Christ’s baptism in the River Jordan, the Gospel of St. Mark tells us that the Holy Spirit drove Christ into the desert. In other places, such as Matthew, Scripture uses the word “led”. Mark chose a more forceful term. It’s a violent image on the heels of the awe-inspiring glory of the Heavens opening and a voice proclaiming Christ a “beloved Son” (Mark 1:11).
Prepare for Battle
Lent lasts forty days (Sundays are not counted). It does not take much of a leap to realize we’re emulating Christ’s forty days in the desert when we enter Lent. Whether we’ve been led or driven into it varies for each us. However, one thing we may not think about is why the Church has us do this as preparation for Easter.
In his commentary on Matthew’s description of the forty days in the desert, Charles Haydock writes,
What treasures of grace might we expect, if, as often as we receive any of the sacraments, we were to retire within ourselves, and shut out, for a time, the world and its cares. Then should we come prepared to withstand temptation, and should experience the divine assistance in every difficulty through life. The life of man is a warfare on earth.
Our lives are warfare. Violence is visited upon our souls through our own concupiscence and the sinfulness of the world around us. We’re constantly being given a choice between God and Satan. When Satan tempts Jesus, he repeatedly gives Christ a choice: Our Lord can either choose to satisfy appetite and passion or choose to follow His Father.
It is no different for us. Therefore, it makes perfect sense that as we go through our earthly pilgrimage, we repeatedly “retire within ourselves” in prayer. Lent is a communal retiring the Church leads us through.
The Temptations of Christ
Fr. John Hardon, in an article on the Temptation of Christ, wrote that Jesus could not be tempted from within like us. Our temptations arise from our own concupiscence and weaknesses. In other words, we can’t be tempted by something we don’t want on some level. Jesus’ human nature, on the other hand, was not fallen or flawed. Rather, His humanity was the perfection God the Father always intended.
If Jesus could not be tempted as us and Satan never had a chance at success, then what was the point? Why did He fast from food and drink for forty days before beginning his public ministry?
Firstly, it was to recall key Old Testament events linked to Salvation History. Moses was on Mt. Sinai, receiving the law, for forty days, during which time he fasted. The Israelites wandered the desert for forty years before entering the Promised Land.
Secondly, it was to serve as an example. Jesus would have had to tell the disciples about His time in the desert for them to be able to write about it later. Therefore, it has an instructive purpose. Jesus is tempted by forbidden food (recalling Adam’s sin), idolatry (recalling the golden calf), and the urge to test God (recalling the Israelites testing God while in the wilderness).
All three of these temptations are fundamental things that we face on a daily basis. The forbidden constantly tempts us, be it food or drink or some other carnal appetite. Celebrities, electronics, and our own hubris constantly tempt us to idolatry. Distrust in God and His providence lead us to test Him and His fidelity.
In each instance, Jesus defeats the temptation through a right reading and understanding of Scripture, except for the final test, when Jesus rebukes Satan.
As we go through Lent, we should carry with us Holy Scripture. When Satan tempts Jesus to turn stones into bread, Jesus replies, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4 RSV CE). This sets the tone for the rest of the encounter, where Jesus repeatedly refers back to Scripture.
St. Jerome once said that ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ. Therefore, if we want to draw closer to Our Lord through the rigors of Lent, we need to read Sacred Scripture, particularly the Gospels. Not only do we need to read it, but we also must digest it and come to a proper understanding of it. We need to rely on commentators faithful to the Church (like Haydock), as well as theologians (like Fr. John Hardon).
A good practice to begin during Lent is that of Lectio Divina, or, Divine Reading. This slow, prayerful reading of Scripture, which also combines meditation and silence, allows us to absorb the Word of God into our hearts. We become like the good soil that produces a bountiful harvest. Click here for more information on Lectio.
Journey through the Desert
As we journey through the desert with Christ, we should arm ourselves with prayer and Sacred Scripture. We need to retire within ourselves with the grace received from the sacraments so that we can better face the temptations of life. Lent is meant to be a time where we seek to overcome our sinful nature and replace bad habits with good. The best ways to do that is through prayer, fasting, the sacraments, reading Sacred Scripture, and staying focused on what’s important.