Tried and Tested: Lent Gets Serious

Christianity boils down to this: for the Holy Spirit to reproduce the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ in and through each of us—so that we may say with John the Baptist and St. Paul, “He must increase [and] I must decrease” (John 3:30); and: “It is no longer I who lives, but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20).

In the Letter to the Hebrews, we read:

“For because he [Jesus] himself has suffered and been tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted” .

Hebrews 2:18, emphasis mine

The italicized verb here is peirazo, which means “to try, test, or tempt” (after all, a temptation is a kind of trial).

Jesus is merciful because he, too, has been tried and tested; the only difference is that he has succeeded where we have failed. As the Catechism puts it, Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness “recapitulate the temptations of Adam in Paradise and of Israel in the desert” (CCC 538).

In Lent, we enter into this trial and victory of Jesus, as the “Church unites herself each year to the mystery of Jesus in the desert” (CCC 540). The entire Christian life is about entering into the life of Christ and allowing his life to be reproduced in us, as the Catechism writes here:

“Christ enables us to live in him all that he himself lived, and he lives it in us.”

CCC 521, emphasis original

The Catechism goes on to quote St. John Eudes expressing this great mystery at the heart of Christian faith:

“We must continue to accomplish in ourselves the stages of Jesus’ life and his mysteries and often beg him to perfect and realize them in us and in his whole Church … For it is the plan of the Son of God to make us and the whole Church partake in his mysteries and extend them and continue them in us and in his whole Church. This is his plan for fulfilling his mysteries in us.”

cited in CCC 521

The Threefold Concupiscence of Sin

St. John exhorts us in his first letter not to love “the world” (1 John 2:15). The “world” of course has a dual meaning in Scripture: on the one hand, as God’s creation the world is fundamentally “good” (see Genesis 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25)—even “very good” after the creation of mankind (1:31). On the other hand, God’s good world has been corrupted by sin, making Satan in fact the “ruler” of this world, as Jesus states in John’s Gospel:

“Now is the judgment of this world, now shall the ruler of this world be cast out; and I, when I am lifted up from the earth will draw all men to myself.”

John 12:31-32, emphasis mine

Immediately after John tells us in his first letter not to “love the world,” he explains his meaning in light of the threefold concupiscence:

“For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, is not of the Father but is of the world.”

1 John 2:16, emphasis mine

John’s words here parallel those in the garden, just before Eve takes of the forbidden fruit:

“So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, and he ate.”

Genesis 3:6. emphasis mine

“Lust of the flesh” (1 John 2:16) parallels the recognition that the fruit was good for food (Genesis 3:6); “lust of the eyes” (1 John 2:16) is similar to the description of the fruit as a delight to the eyes (Genesis 3:6); and the “pride of life” (1 John 2:16) is analogous to the perception of the fruit as desirable to make one wise (Genesis 3:6), since here it’s a matter of finding “wisdom” without God—which captures the essence of pride. As the Catechism puts it, Adam and Eve sought to be “like God,” but without God (CCC 398) (Ironically, they already were like God—having been made in his “image and likeness,” see Genesis 1:26-28).

Traditionally, “lust of the eyes” here in 1 John 2:16 is understood as greed: my eyes see and I want.

Thus, both in Genesis 3:6 and St. John’s recounting of the threefold concupiscence, we have a reference to disordered bodily desire, greed, and pride.

Jesus’ Temptation in the Wilderness

Entering into the plight both of Israel and humanity, Jesus’ temptations can be understood along the lines of the aforementioned threefold concupiscence.

The first temptation of Jesus is hunger, as the Devil seeks to entice him to turn stones into bread (see Matthew 4:2-3), reminiscent of lust of the flesh.

The second and third temptations are harder to correlate as precisely, but they clear fit the general picture. The temptation to throw oneself down from the pinnacle of the Temple is described as a matter of “testing” God (see Matthew 4:7), which in context is a matter of vainglory—the temptation to use his divine authority to “show off,” as it were.

The last temptation (that is, in Matthew—it’s the second temptation in Luke) is to receive the glory of all the kingdoms of the world, if only Jesus will worship Satan (see Matthew 4:8-9 and Luke 4:5-7).

In other words, in one way or another, Jesus’ second and third temptations concern vanity, power, and glory.

All three temptations of Jesus, therefore, can be understood with reference to the desires of the flesh, power/vanity, and glory—and as such, parallel the language of Genesis in 3:6 and John’s threefold concupiscence. They certainly match humanity’s experience of being beset by lust, greed (which is closely tied to vanity and power, as we seek to accumulate assets and prestige), and pride.

Jesus Invites Us into His Life and Shows Us the Way

Jesus exhorts us to three time-honored spiritual practices which directly target this toxic human predicament.

First, Jesus calls us to fast (see Matthew 6:16), directly countering the lust of the flesh. Our addiction to pleasure starts in the womb; hence, it makes sense, even naturally speaking, that we would need to bend this back occasionally in order to restore a healthy balance. This is all the more true theologically, in light of the full reality of sin and its power over our lives.

Second, Jesus calls us to give alms (see Matthew 6:2), directly countering the lust of the eyes. As any vice is overcome only by practicing its opposite virtue, so too here: by giving away money and possessions, we begin to undo our deep attachment of finding security and status in money and possessions.

Third, Jesus calls us to pray (see Matthew 6:5), directly countering our pride.

The best self-diagnosis of whether we are sincere and authentic followers of Jesus, or whether we just happen to be fans of his who enjoy talking theology and ecclesial politics, is whether or not we make regular time for prayer. Generally speaking, when we get busy, this is the first thing to go—it’s so easy to not have time. But we have to ask ourselves: what are we making time for? In my experience, while I can say Jesus is the most important thing in my life, the true brass tacks answer is more clearly given by what consumes my mental and emotional energy, my time, and my money. In this sense, the old adage is true: everybody worships something—everybody has a matter of ultimate concern. My time, mental energy, and money are perhaps the most honest indicators of what this truly is for me.

By praying regularly, I am doing what I would do if I sincerely believed in our Lord. By doing so on a habitual basis, my faith grows leaps and bounds over time. Conversely, even a theologian can spend his or her days researching, writing, and lecturing about God—even over Sacred Scripture—without actually talking to God, that is, without really praying. The tragic result is an inevitable slow withering and erosion of one’s faith. For talking about God is no substitute for a living relationship with him.

Jesus Fulfills the Story of Israel and Humanity

As devotees of The Bible Timeline know well, Jesus brings Israel’s story to its eschatological climax. But Israel’s story is part of a larger whole; in fact, Israel’s story always embodies humanity’s story. As we have said, Jesus relives and recapitulates both the story of Israel and humanity. By considering Jesus’ threefold command to fast, give alms, and pray in light of the threefold concupiscence of sin (and its parallel in the garden), we can see how Jesus is restoring our broken humanity. And not only restoring what was lost, Jesus elevates us to share in his divinity (see 2 Peter 1:4 and CCC 460).

This appeared at Ascension.
Image: Thomas Hawk Flickr.

Andrew Swafford

Andrew Swafford is Associate Professor of Theology at Benedictine College. He is general editor and contributor to The Great Adventure Catholic Bible published by Ascension Press and host of the video series (and author of the companion books) Hebrews: the New and Eternal Covenant, and Romans: The Gospel of Salvation, both published by Ascension. Andrew is also author of Nature and Grace, John Paul to Aristotle and Back Again; and Spiritual Survival in the Modern World. He holds a doctorate in Sacred Theology from the University of St. Mary of the Lake and a master’s degree in Old Testament & Semitic Languages from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is member of the Society of Biblical Literature, Academy of Catholic Theology, and a senior fellow at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology. He lives with his wife Sarah and their five children in Atchison, Kansas.