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As Lent begins, there are some traditional readings in the Liturgy familiar to regular Mass attendees. The Ash Wednesday Gospel condemns a shallow worship of God that glorifies people rather than Him with virtue signaling about Prayer, Fasting and Almsgiving.
The church encourages our fasting in particular during this season to bring us closer to Jesus by foregoing such “guilty pleasures” as binging on junk food, social media on the Internet, TV, or mindless gossiping. In so doing we can better resist temptations for things that might be impeding our walk with Christ.
Speaking of temptations, on the First Sunday of Lent, we read accounts from either Matthew’s, Mark’s or Luke’s Gospel, (depending on which liturgical cycle year it is, either A, B or C) of our Lord’s victorious encounter against Satan, as the devil, using various temptations, tries to find out if Jesus really is the Son of God. He comes to our Lord, after Jesus has been fasting in the desert for 40 days, at the start of His ministry.
But while Jesus was without sin He nonetheless allowed HImself to be tempted by the devil, much as in the manner that He allowed Himself to be baptized in the Jordan by John the Baptist, although he would not need to be baptized for the forgiveness of sins considering He was without sin. In a similar manner He frequently was in prayer to His Heavenly Father (and ours), God praying to God Himself as it were, to give us a moving example of Holiness and Humility.
In allowing Himself to be tempted by Satan Jesus was similarly showing us how to deal with the evil one’s snares. As a quick summary, Satan’s three temptations for Jesus were for our Lord to turn stones into bread; to jump off the parapet of the Great Temple in Jerusalem so that angels might break his fall; and finally, to bow down and worship Satan in exchange for all the kingdoms of the world.
St. Gregory once commented on these three in a homily that “Jesus dealt with three temptations–to gluttony, vainglory and avarice..The Devil tempted him [Jesus] by gluttony when he said ‘Tell these stones to become bread.’ He tempted him by vain ambition when he said, ‘If you are the Son of God, cast yourself down.’ He tempted him by an avaricious desire for high position when ‘he showed him all the kingdoms of the world saying, ‘I will give you all these if you will fall down and worship me.’”
St. Thomas Aquinas, in his monumental work the Summa Theologica, also summed up our Lord’s motivations here, as mentioned earlier quite nicely. He wrote that, as follows: “Christ willed to be tempted: 1. That he might assist us against our own temptations. ….2. To warn us that no man, however holy he be, should think himself safe and free from temptation….3. To give us an example how we should overcome the temptations of the devil, 4. To fill and saturate our minds with confidence in His mercy. For we have not a high-priest who cannot have compassion on our infirmities, but one tempted in all things, like as we are, without sin. (Heb. 4:15)”
Aquinas, one of our church’s greatest theologians, also quoted here another towering figure in our faith, St. Augustine, as saying: “Christ gave himself to the devil to be tempted, that in the matter of our overcoming those same temptations He might be of service not only by his help but by his example too.”
Along these lines, the Patron Saint of parish Priests, St. Jean-Marie Vianney, fully agreed that “If our Lord was tempted, it was to show us that we must be also”. This great Saint also suggested that whenever we feel beset by sinful temptations, we must focus on their opposites as soon as possible.
For example, when you feel yourself becoming vain, try to be humble instead; when you’re struggling with impurity, turn off the electronic gadgets and pray to God for His help to subdue those lustful thoughts or urges; if you have a distaste for prayers, say more of them and more often. In all these efforts, reach out to our Lord for help whenever needed. Helping us sorry sinners is His specialty! And we weren’t meant to go it alone!
Regarding that third temptation, as it appears in Matthew’s Gospel, Satan, “the father of all lies” as Jesus Himself referred to him famously in John 8:44, was offering something that was not really his in the first place, but rather something he had purloined, the kingdoms of the world.
Archbishop Fulton Sheen in his wonderful biography of our Lord entitled Life of Christ points out that “The words of Satan seem, indeed, very boastful. Had the kingdoms of the world really been delivered to him? Our Lord called Satan the “prince of the world,” but it was not God that had delivered any of the kingdoms of the world to him; mankind had done so, by sin…….The kingdom that Satan offered was of the world, and not of the Spirit. It would still be a kingdom of evil and the hearts of His subjects would not be regenerated."
Sheen also noted that Satan was trying to turn Our Lord to thoughts of worldly power and prestige rather than heavenly ones by testing His willingness to succumb to earthly desires while the evil one was trying to figure out just who this Jesus was. Was He the Son of God? Or just a great holy man?
As Sheen wrote: "Satan saw in Jesus an extraordinary human being Whom he suspected of being the Messias and the Son of God. Hence he prefaced each of the temptations with the conditional “if.” If he had been sure that he was speaking to God, he would not indeed have tried to tempt Him. But if Our Lord was merely a man whom God had chosen for the work of salvation, then he would do everything in his power to lead Him into ways of dealing with the sins of mankind other than the ways that God Himself would choose."
Christ’s famous response, as recorded in Matthew’s Gospel was as follows: “Begone, Satan! for it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve' ’’(Matthew 4:10).
Particularly odious here is the Father of Lies claiming that the world is his Kingdom. Sheen echoes here our Lord’s reference to Satan in John 14:30 as the Prince (or ruler) of this world but clearly not the King! Christ is the King. Satan’s so-called Kingdom is a purloined one where worldly power and prestige are the only things that count (the world, the flesh and the devil).
Consider how dystopic and fraudulent his world is. It is one of much unrest, injustice, poverty, and wars. Thus, we cannot let ourselves be seduced by Satan’s glittering fool’s gold. Too many of our world leaders act as if they would take Satan up on his offer to give them the world if they would bow down to him and not to Jesus, as they engage in various forms of plunder and self-aggrandizement.
Sadly, we see the results: turmoil and misery all around us in the devil’s counterfeit “kingdom”, with so much corruption, along with self styled experts trying to lead humanity into some Godless utopia where transhumanism (the supposed merger of man and machine) and technocracy are to rule the day! It is a world to meant be filled with people who worship Mother Earth rather than honoring Mother Mary!
Note also in these temptations how the devil is more than happy to twist and distort scripture for his own diabolical ends for the eternal run of souls. He throws a line from Psalm 91 at Jesus to goad Him into jumping off the parapet of the Jerusalem temple in order to attest to God’s protection from harm even if Christ tests God recklessly.
The evil one says “He will give his angels charge of you,” and “On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.” (Psalm 91:11-12). These words are actually meant to encourage our trust in God rather than to test Him.
Of course, Word made flesh (John 1:14) can throw Satan’s taunts right back at him scripturally! In the first temptation, to solve hunger pangs, Jesus responded “‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God’ ” (Deut 8:3).
To the second temptation, that for Jesus to plunge down from the Temple so that he may be caught by angels, Jesus said “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test” (Deut 6:16).
And at Satan’s request in the third temptation, for the ultimate Faustian bargain, the world at one’s feet, Jesus gave Satan, and ultimately all of us, a most memorable and inspiring rebuke “You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve” (Deut. 6:13).
Moving on from these wonderful examples of fidelity to God in the midst of temptations, Lent is a good time, when fasting and doing penances, to remind yourself that having temptations is not in itself sinful. Indeed, some of them might be relatively harmless, as when checking out treats at a bakery, for example when you’re on a diet.
However, giving into them constantly, particularly on grave matters such as larceny and adultery for example, can put you on a road to perdition, even worse than the fly caught in a spider’s web!
But don’t feel upset when you feel beset by sinful thoughts and desires in your spiritual journey. The devil and his minions know your soul is valuable to God and they are trying to do whatever they can to snatch it away from Him.
St. Jean Marie Vianney once said in a sermon that those who experience no temptations are in the biggest trouble of all because, in effect, their vices have become habits and they might not feel any sort of need to struggle against them.
Remember as well that having sinful temptations is in not itself sinful. It is how we respond to them that matters. In respecting our ability to choose to love and serve God of our own free will, he will never seek to impose His will on us. But He will allow us to be tempted not to do His will.
But in resisting sinful inclinations through staying close to God in prayer in the sacramental life we can grow in holiness as our spiritual muscles are strengthened through such resistance, as it were.
God may put us to the test but it is foolhardy indeed for us to try to put Him to the test, as in Satan’s example from Psalm 91 mentioned earlier. In other words, we all fall prey to temptations of the world of alcohol, sex, drugs, power, and such but we should not seek these things out thinking presumptuously that of course we can handle them and that God will bail us out no matter what.
In His mysterious providence, he might indeed come to rescue us when we get into trouble from our willful persistent sins, as from substance abuse or criminal behavior, allowing us the precious opportunity for repentance, but we should not assume nor abuse His mercy in this regard.
And don’t let Satan cloud your mind with thoughts that you can’t possibly live without some kind of sinful dissipation, such as illicit drug use, continual drunkenness, cheating on your spouse or your employer or employees in theft. But at the same time, don’t let your being tempted to sinful behavior demoralize you.
If you’re trying to walk with Christ in loving obedience you will naturally be a target for demonic forces. As touched on earlier, your soul is valuable real estate in the spiritual battle between Christ and Satan of which these temptations in the Gospels were a microcosm.
Keep in mind as well that God allows us to be tempted, just as He allows us to have our moments of doubt or trepidation to encourage us not to be too “big for our britches” as it were; forsaking humility thinking that like the Pharisee who’s so full of himself in the famous parable of the Pharisee and the Publican (Luke 18:9-14) that as he thanks God for his being such a good religious person, he sounds like God should be thanking him, because, after all he's not like that heathen tax collector!
Giving up something you find pleasurable, if not essential, for getting through each day can help strengthen you spiritually. When you combine fasting and prayer you give yourself a priceless workout to cultivate or strengthen proper habits to bring you closer to God! St. Louis de Montfort once said that “God is a spring of living water which flows unceasingly into the hearts of those who pray.”
Let Jesus' example in His temptations inspire you, in this Lent and always, to fend off Satan with your own version of “Begone” following our Lord’s example in Matthew’s Gospel when the evil one assails you with his counterfeit empty promises.
Take heart that the Kingdom of Christ will ultimately triumph and the gates of Hell will not prevail over His church. In the meantime, use this special time to fortify yourself with prayer and imitate Jesus in fighting temptation through your fasting and other such penances. And if you’re “giving up” some food or treat, think about giving whatever savings from this that might occur, to a worthy charity or food bank, which is becoming more and more needed. This is a good way to do your prayer, fasting and almsgiving in this important season of Lent!