FIRST SUNDAY OF LENT (B)
We tend to equate temptation with sin itself. We are tempted to do what we know is not right, and feel that this temptation is due to our sinful nature. If we were not inclined to sin, we tell ourselves, we would not be tempted by these things. Therefore it is hard for us to think of Jesus truly being tempted in the same way that we are. We are tempted (no pun intended) to brush off Jesus' temptation in the desert as being a formality. We think that because Jesus is without sin, He could not be truly tempted, and so see the story as an illustration of how foolish Satan is, thinking that he can do the impossible and tempt the Son of God.
But the gospels tell us otherwise. Not only Mark's gospel, but also Matthew's and Luke's tell us of Jesus' temptation in the desert. Obviously the gospel writers considered this an important episode in the life of Christ, and of great value to our lives as Christians. They understood Jesus' temptation to be quite real, even though Christ was not fallen like the rest of humanity. We must consider that Adam and Eve, both created without original sin, living in a state of grace and friendship with God in paradise, yielded to temptation the first time it reared its ugly head. Being sinless does not mean never being tempted.
I am a convert to the Catholic Church, baptized when I was 23 years old. So unlike most cradle Catholics, I can remember my baptism. Sometime after my baptism, I remarked to my pastor about a strange effect it seemed to have on me. I was anticipating experiencing a lessening of temptation once I was baptized. I figured I had the life of God within me, helping me to resist sin, so I ought to be tempted less. What I found was actually the opposite. I seemed to be tempted more in my post-baptismal life and it was quite unsettling. My pastor told me that this was common (and indeed I have since spoken with many others who have been baptized as adults and shared similar experiences). With the grace of God dwelling within us, cleansed of original and actual sin by the waters of baptism, the negativity of sin stood out all the more in sharp relief. Moreover, now a child of God, I made a loftier prize for the devil who was now working harder to lay claim to my soul. Living a holy life in friendship with God certainly does not mean you will never be tempted. Far from it.
This is why Christ Himself chose to undergo temptation. By submitting to temptation, Jesus wants to show us that we need not be afraid of temptations. In fact, suffering resolutely through our temptation can be an occasion of spiritual growth. St. Alphonsus de Ligouri is an 18th century bishop and doctor of the Church, and founder of the Redemptorist order. He taught that "the Lord sometimes permits that souls, which are dear to Him, should be tempted with some violence, in order that they may better understand their own weakness, and the necessity of grace to prevent them from falling. . . God permits us to be tempted, that we may be more detached from the things of earth, and conceive a more ardent desire to behold Him in heaven."
Isn't this what Lent is all about? Better understanding our own weakness, and acknowledging our reliance on God's grace? Becoming detached from things of this world and increasing our desire to be close to God? You could say that temptation and Lent go hand in hand. This is one reason why Catholics traditionally "give up something" for Lent. We voluntarily choose to give up things that we are attached to -- be it dessert, caffeine, alcohol, or Netflix -- knowing that we will be tempted to enjoy these goods. It does us no good to give up something we have little attraction to in the first place. If you don't like coffee, giving it up for Lent is meaningless. On the other hand, if you develop cravings for a mocha latte every time you see a Starbucks sign, then giving it up is spiritually beneficial because it trains you to resist temptation. By disciplining ourselves to resist temptation in small matters, we become better able to resist temptation in larger matters.
St. Alphonsus also says, "When it is disturbed by temptation, and sees itself in danger of committing sin, the soul has recourse to the Lord and to His divine Mother... it humbles itself and takes refuge in the arms of divine mercy. By this means, as is proved by experience, it acquires more strength and is united more closely to God." Jesus truly was subject to temptation, and He resisted with God's help. We are also subject to temptation time and again in our lives, but we can resist -- like Jesus -- with the help of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.