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Jesus dispatches Satan and his temptations this Sunday, the First Sunday of Lent, Year C, creating a dynamic tension between Lent’s beginning, in the desert with Satan, and its ending, in Holy Week in Jerusalem.
Satan enslaves the world by promising comfort, power and glory, in this life, on his terms — Jesus delivers on his false promises by giving us providence, self-control and glory, on God’s terms.
To see the two approaches, compare the first Temptation, to turn stones to bread, and Holy Thursday, when Jesus turns bread into his body and blood.
Jesus “was led by the spirit into the desert for forty days. He ate nothing during those days, and when they were over he was hungry,” the Gospel begins.
The devil challenges him: “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.”
The story has age-old resonance. In it you can hear echoes of the major turning points in the slavery of the Jewish people. You can hear Satan promising Adam and Eve that “when you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods.” You can hear echoes of the Israelites complaining to Moses, longing for their days of slavery to the Egyptians where they at least had their food taken care of.
And you can hear our own slavery today. We, too are tempted to follow our appetites, to shrink our souls to the size of our material comforts, and take control of our own providence rather than rely on God.
But we know how Jesus answered Satan, the Jewish people, and us — then, now, and for all time: With the Eucharist.
“It is written, One does not live on bread alone,” Jesus said. He is quoting Moses who described the reasons for fasting to the hungry Israelites, saying:
“Remember how for these forty years the Lord, your God, has directed all your journeying in the wilderness, so as to test you by affliction, to know what was in your heart: To keep his commandments, or not. He therefore let you be afflicted with hunger, and then fed you with manna, a food unknown to you and your ancestors, so you might know that it is not by bread alone that people live, but by all that comes forth from the mouth of the Lord.”
For Adam and Eve, the Israelites, and us, there is only one way to be like God — by being holy, a follower of his commandments who unites with him in love. But the Israelites didn’t trust God’s providence, and would choose a slave-master over god. So do we, again and again.
But Jesus doesn’t abandon us in disgust. Instead he decides to give us what we want — in the Eucharist, “the Bread which through its intangible substance strengthens human hearts,” as St. Ambrose put it.
There we find the answer to our hunger and the entryway to holiness. At the beginning of Lent, we hear that Jesus will not turn stones to bread for himself. At the end, we learn that he will turn bread into his very body for us.
The Second Temptation is the temptation to gain the kingdom Satan’s way.
The Gospel continues: “Then he took him up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a single instant. The devil said to him, ‘I shall give to you all this power and glory; for it has been handed over to me, and I may give it to whomever I wish. All this will be yours, if you worship me.’”
It would have been so easy for Jesus to compromise, take the kingdoms from Satan and be done. This is the way we tend to gain authority and credibility — by shrugging off the inconvenient aspects of our faith life, and skipping the parts that embarrass us or hold us back from getting ahead in the world. But before we know it, we are slaves and our lives are being spent working against God instead of for him.
Jesus quotes Deuteronomy again to answer Satan. This time, he quotes the Moses’s instructions on how the Jewish people are to live in prosperity. They are given the great commandment that “The Lord is one and him should you serve,” and they are told how to respond to the idols that they meet: “You shall worship the Lord, your God, and him alone shall you serve.”
This is the same temptation we face today: Worshiping the idols of money, pleasure and power, looking for a fiefdom of our own making.
Jesus did take Satan’s kingdoms from him, but not by bowing to him. Instead, he bowed to his Father’s will and mounted the cross.
Pilate asks if he is a king. He is, but his kingdom is “not of this world.” Satan said he would crown him with gold in the desert, but on Calvary he is finally crowned, with thorns. Satan said he would robe him in worldly majesty — instead he chooses to be robed in the world’s mockery.
Here is the only way to win a kingdom, and we pray daily that we will follow in his footsteps when we say the Our Father: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.”
The third temptation is for Christ to be saved in a dramatic fall from the Temple. Instead, he comes from below to save us.
Last, Satan takes Jesus, somehow, to the top of the great Temple in Jerusalem, and says, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here.”
He even quotes Psalm 91, which we pray at Sunday’s Mass, to try to make his case. “For it is written: He will command his angels concerning you and with their hands they will support you, lest you dash your foot against a stone.’
It sounds so nice and religious, that the angels will save Jesus and win the crowds. But of course Jesus is God himself. He doesn’t need angels to save him.
So he quotes the very next line in Psalm 91 right back at Satan. It says: “You shall tread upon the asp and the viper; you shall trample down the lion and the dragon.” And that’s what Christ does on the third day of the Triduum, descending into hell, plundering the viper’s stronghold of souls, rising from the dead to cripple the prowling lion and pouring forth his Spirit to snuff the flames of the dragon.
Jesus doesn’t swoop down from above to gather us up; he goes down to the depths to raise us up.
The specific thing that Jesus tells Satan is again taken from the fundamental lessons to the Jewish people in Deuteronomy, chapter 16. Moses warns the people about Massah, where he had given in to the complaining crowd by impatiently demanding water of God, knocking his staff on a rock.
“You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test,” says Jesus.
God doesn’t want us to impatiently try to speed up his will, trying to get to the part that satisfies our wants before God gives us the part that satisfies our needs. Instead, he wants us to surrender to his will.
St. Paul in Sunday’s Second Reading shows how this salvation works, for all — “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all, enriching all who call upon him. For ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’”
This is real salvation. “His name is the only one that contains the presence it signifies,” the Catechism explains. “Whoever invokes the name of Jesus is welcoming the Son of God who loved him and who gave himself up for him.”
This is why martyrs called on Christ’s name as lesser kings killed them — and this is why calling on Christ’s name in prayer is our path to rejecting the world’s idols and uniting with Jesus Christ in Lent.
And thus, Jesus foils the devil so that we can too.
The devil told him to make bread out of stones; Jesus did him one better and made the Eucharist. The devil offered him worldly power for the taking; Jesus did him one better and offers an eternal kingdom to all of us, but by giving, not taking. Last, the devil brought him up to the top of the Temple to impress everybody; but Jesus chose to be “lifted up” on the cross, the true path to glory.
The devil only offers slavery and bets that he can convince us that this is what is necessary to get what we want. But through fasting, almsgiving and prayer we get all that Satan promises and much, much more — the hard way, but the only way.