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Saltem Diebus Dominicis: The Devil, Temptations, and You

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The Roman Station for this 1st Sunday of Lent is Rome’s Cathedral, the Basilic of St. John Lateran, referred to as the “Mother Church of the City and of the World”. It’s full title is the Papal Archbasilica Cathedral of the Most Holy Savior and of Saints John the Baptist and the Evangelist in the Lateran.

Our Gospel reading for this Sunday looks backward to the Fall of man in Adam and forward to man’s redemption by the New Adam.   The New Adam is, of course, Christ.  Christ recapitulates many of the pivotal figures of the Old Testament covenants and they foreshadow Him.  It is not a contradiction to say that He is the New Adam and the New David, the New Moses and the New Solomon, the New Israel and the new Abraham.  For example, Our Gospel reading today, from Matthew 4:1-11 begins after the Lord’s passing through the waters at His Baptism and then spending 40 days and nights in the desert in a renewal and cleansing, as it were, of the first Exodus from Egypt and the peoples’ years in the wilderness.  Christ was faithful in his fasting and time in the wilderness, whereas the people fell many times.  Hence, Christ can be viewed as the New Moses.  As the heir of the Davidic Throne, Christ is Priest, Prophet and King even during His earthly life, but He does not fail and fall as David did.  Even less did he fail in His being the New Solomon, David’s ultimately faithless son.  And this is where we might begin our peeling back of the layers of this Gospel like an amazing onion.

After Christ’s fast of 40 days, which gives us a model for our Lent, Satan, recognizing that this Jesus was different from others, came to test Him.  The temptations reveal Christ as the New Adam as well as the New Solomon.

There were three temptations.  Each temptation lines up with the three key elements in the temptations inflicted on our First Parents in the Garden concerning the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge.  God had forbidden Adam and Eve to eat the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge.  As Revelation 12 shows, the serpent was Satan.  Satan slyly insinuated that God lied to them about the reason they should not eat suggesting that God didn’t not want them to be like Him, determining good and evil.  Eve then examined the fruit and saw three things (Gen 3:6).   The fruit was 1) good for food, 2) a delight to the eyes and 3) desirable to make one wise.  These three elements are the root cause of all sins.  They are the threefold concupiscence, disorders which John identified in 1 John 2: “lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life”.  The “lust of the flesh” is the desire for pleasure as, in the case of the fruit of the tree, it was “good for food”.  Lust of the flesh is often related to the phrase, “forbidden fruit”.  However, the fruit was also a “delight to the eyes”.  We have a propensity to desire that which we see.  We that see something is appealing and we want it.  One of the things we are taught by those advanced in the spiritual life is to practice “custody of the eyes”.  Don’t spend time looking that things you should not desire.  Lastly, the fruit was supposed to make our First Parents wise like God.  Satan told them literally “you will become gods (elohim, plural).  Of course this is the sin of pride.

In our Gospel reading about the temptations of Christ, we see each of these three root sins undone.  The new Adam is tempted by Satan to turn rocks into bread.  Translations usually say “If you are the Son of God…”. However, that “if” word in Greek, ei, could also be “since… Since you are the Son of God…”. Consider that Christ had already fulfilled His 40-day fast and, being hungry, could just as well change the stones and eaten.  But He went above and beyond in an act of supererogation, going beyond what He had to do in His obedience to the Father.    This temptation, in its language also foreshadows the mean of the New Adam’s ultimate fidelity to the Father, the Crucifixion, when the priests, scribes and elders mockingly said, “If He be the King of Israel…”.    But Christ is strong against the temptation and responds to Satan. Christ responds with Deuteronomy 8:3.

Next came the temptation of the root sin “pride of life”, the desire for possession and dominance.  Satan cites Ps 90/91 provoking the Lord to throw Himself from the pinnacle of the Temple.  It would be a famous feat that people would admire, and it would be an improper use of His own power and authority.  The Lord responds with Deut 6:16, thus refusing to put the Father to a test.

Next the root cause “lust of the eyes” is exposed by the Devil and defeated by the Lord.  After a vision of all the kingdoms of the world, Christ undoes this root by His faithfulness.

I found in the work of John Bergsma, in one of his good commentaries on the Mass readings of the Novus Ordo – which are more or less the same today – that in the three temptations Christ shows Himself to be the new David, the new Son of David, the new Solomon, who had been renowned for his wisdom before he strayed.   Solomon was supposed to keep the Law of Moses (1 Kings 2:1-4 ) which said in Deut 17:14-17 that the king was not to accumulate several things: horses, gold and women.  Of course, Solomon did all those things, which also correspond to the three-fold concupiscence, the lust of the flesh being wives, the eyes being lust of the eyes, and, for their military and social factors horses being “pride of life”.  Since Jesus is faithful to the Law and to the Father, He is the new Son of David, the new Solomon.

This is a good reading for the 1st Sunday of Lent because we embark in this time on a warpath again the three-fold enemy from within us by fasting (to control the flesh), almsgiving against the desire to possess, and prayer (which forces us to recognize our smallness before God.

On that note, though there is so much more to unpack from this mysterious episode, I’ll conclude with this take away.  St. Paul wrote in His Letter to the Hebrews,

“For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sinning (4:15).”

Bl. Ildefonso Schuster in his monumental Sacramentary, observed:

The Fathers of the Church, and notably St Gregory [the Great +604], in a famous homily delivered on this day to the people assembled at the Lateran, ask why Christ consented to be tempted by Satan, and remark that he did so in order to partake of the infirmity of our nature, and in that nature to defeat and humble the tempter on our behalf and to obtain for us the grace of overcoming our temptations by the merits of his victory. …

Schuster goes on about what Gregory said on this very Sunday, and this is the key:

Our Lord also wished to teach us that there is no sin in being tempted, but only in giving way to the tempter. … The faithful should contemplate with special devotion this mystery of Christ tempted in the desert, for there is no other which shows more clearly how the divine Providence makes even the wiles of the devil serve to our sanctification by using temptation as a crucible in which to purify our virtue, and by causing it to be an occasion of greater grace and profit to the soul in its spiritual life.

By His temptations, Our Lord teaches us that temptations are not themselves sins.  They can be paths to victory.  There is no sin in being tempted, but only giving way to the temptation.  Keep this in mind when making an examination of conscience and going to confession.   GO TO CONFESSION!  Don’t confess temptations.  Confess your sins.

I would recommend a review of these texts for Sunday’s Mass as we go into the week.  Also, look at Psalm 91/90, which is woven through the whole formula for Mass.

In an ironic twist, by the way, Psalm 91/90, which Satan quotes to the Lord, is the very psalm that the Jewish priests used when trying the exorcize demons.

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