O God, who dost purify Thy Church by the yearly observance of forty days; grant to Thy household that what we strive to obtain from Thee by self denial, we may secure by good works.
– From the Collect for the First Sunday in Lent
As literature, the four Gospels are among the greatest written works in history. They tell the story of the God-man, Jesus Christ, in a way that can bring fresh insight every time they are read. In light of this, their brevity is striking. One could write for eternity and not begin to describe the Incarnate Son of God, yet these four short works tell us all we need to know about Christ for our salvation.
One example of this brevity is found in the Gospel for the First Sunday in Lent. St. Matthew writes, “And when [Jesus] had fasted forty days and forty nights, afterwards he was hungry.” The former tax-collector is a master of understatement: he tells us that after not eating anything for forty days, Jesus “was hungry.” I would imagine so! But even though this might at first glance seem a minor point, it plumbs the depths of the mystery of the Incarnation.
Jesus is the omnipotent Son of God, but he is also a man, and, as a man, he suffers from physical weaknesses just like any of us. He really was hungry; he wasn’t just play-acting at being hungry. So when the devil came and said to him, “If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread,” Jesus really was tempted by Satan’s words. Imagine yourself when you’ve tried to fast for even a short period of time—you begin to obsess about food, or you’re on edge, or you can’t think straight. This was true of Jesus as well. So the devil’s temptation comes at a time of great weakness for Christ. Yet, the Lord responds clearly and without hesitation, “It is written, Not in bread alone doth man live, but in every word that proceedeth from the mouth of God.” Jesus shows us the way to resist temptation: put not your trust in human weakness, but in the power of God. It is not food that sustains us, but the providence of God in our lives.
The practice of fasting, which the Lord models for us during the forty days in the desert, and which the Church urges us to imitate during the forty days of Lent, is fundamental to overcoming vice and living a life of virtue. Regarding the tempting of Jesus by Satan, St. John Chrysostom writes,
The devil begins his temptation with the necessity of the belly. Mark well the craft of that wicked demon. Note at what precise point he begins his struggling and how well he remembers what he does best. For it was by this same means that he cast out the first man and then encompassed him with thousands of other evils. Now by the same means here he again weaves his deceit: the temptation to indulge the belly. (The Gospel of Matthew, Homily 13.3)
The “belly” is the front-lines in our war against sin. If we succumb to gluttony when it comes to food, then what power do we have to resist other temptations? We become what St. Paul called “enemies of the cross of Christ; Whose end is destruction; whose God is their belly; and whose glory is in their shame; who mind earthly things” (Phil 3:18-19).
But through fasting, we make the belly instead the first line of defense. We grow in our dependence on God and in His omnipotent power, instead of on our pitiful weakness. This Lent, let us model ourselves after Christ in the desert in our fasting, understanding it is through our self-denial that we can ward off the attacks of the devil.
Eric Sammons is the Executive Director of Crisis Publications.