First reading Genesis 2:7-9,3:1-7
Responsorial Psalm Psalm 50(51):3-6,12-14,17
Second reading Romans 5:12-19
Gospel Matthew 4:1-11
Today the Word of the Lord takes us to two very different but intimately related places. First, we find ourselves in the Garden at the creation of the first man and his subsequent fall from grace (along with his wife Eve). Second, we are taken to the desert with the new man, Jesus Christ, and his subsequent triumph over evil. These scenes are tied together in that they both present the human being tempted by Satan, who acts as liar and tempter. Even the temptations of Jesus mirror those of our first parents: First, Satan tells lies to sow mistrust of God: “Did God really say you were not to eat from any of the trees of the garden?… No! You will not die! God knows in fact that on the day you eat it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods, knowing good and evil.” In the case of Jesus, the Devil says, “if you are the son of God”, calling into question the Father’s words in the preceding verses at Jesus’ baptism, “this is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Then there follows a threefold temptation: “The woman saw that the tree was good to eat (the desire of the flesh) and pleasing to the eye (the desire to possess) and that is was desirable for the knowledge that it could give (pride– the desire to take the place of God). So she took some of its fruit and ate it.” In the desert we hear, “if you are the Son of God, tell these stones to turn into loaves (the desire of the flesh) … If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down (pride– everyone will see that you are God and will worship you) … I will give you all these [kingdoms of the world and their splendour] if you fall at my feet and worship me (the desire to possess) … Then Jesus replied, ‘be off Satan!’”
But aside from the similarities we see in these two scenes, the key, I believe, is in their difference. The story of the first man’s creation and fall takes place in the Garden, the Greek word for which is paradeisos– paradise. The story of the new man’s triumph, on the other hand, takes place in the desert, the complete opposite to the Garden. Just as the first man was created in the garden, here we have the new man, a new humanity, being created and forged in the desert. The first human beings were made to be together in paradise, a place teeming with life and abundance. Our Lord, however, appears alone in the dry and dead wasteland, the haunt of demons. There are several aspects to this. First, the desert is the consequence of the fall. When our first parents abandoned God, death and corruption came into the world just as St Paul teaches in our second reading: “sin entered the world through one man, and through sin death, and thus death has spread through the whole human race because everyone has sinned.” The desert is the death of the garden and the image of sin’s consequences. Second, Jesus enters the desert– our desert. Jesus, though he is without sin, enters the consequences of our sin and sojourns in the lonely, lifeless desert for us. Third, in his own person he reverses sin. He resists the lies and temptations of Satan, the very same that resulted in the fall and created the death of the Garden in the first place.
Dear brothers and sisters, our readings today are truly profound. In the person of Jesus, sin and death are defeated! In the person of Jesus, sin and death are reversed! In the person of Jesus, paradise is restored to us! In the person of Jesus a new humanity is created! And this season of Lent, the season of the desert, leads to the triumph of Easter if we so participate. I will say, it leads to nothing but a never-ending desert for those who choose not to be intentional about their faith or cling to the person of Jesus. In him alone is paradise restored. So, if the new life of the resurrection is to be ours, we must follow Jesus in the desert. In him we must resist the lies that the Devil tells us. And these lies are multiplied in our day. Today we live in an upside-down world where what is evil is celebrated and called good, while what is good and holy is reviled and called bad. In Jesus we must learn to walk alone in the desert. Modern people are so afraid of loneliness, silence and stillness. We busy ourselves so as to not have to face ourselves. We fill every moment with stimulation and input from televisions, computers, mobile phones, radios and entertainment because we are afraid to face the silence. We do anything to avoid a sense of being alone. But dear friends, no one else can make the journey for us. While Adam and Eve were together in their fall, Jesus was alone in his triumph. We too, though God gives us many helpers and companions to walk with us, are fundamentally alone and alone can make the decision to follow Jesus or not. In our aloneness with Jesus, we must also learn to resist the threefold temptation that still plagues us today: the desires of the flesh, the desire to possess and the pride of life that seeks to usurp the place of God in our lives. It is from these three things that every manner of wickedness proceeds, and by following Jesus’ example of fidelity and self-restraint that we become truly free. Free from slavery to our desires and addictions, free from idolatry and pride, and free for what is good and truly wholesome. Free to worship God in spirit and truth in whom is the fullness of life and love.
It’s no accident, dear brothers and sisters, that the Church calls us to prayer, fasting and almsgiving during the Lenten season. These are the weapons of choice that countless generations of Christians have used to enter the arena with Jesus and conquer our threefold fallenness. Fasting is a manner of resisting the desire of the flesh, an exercise in self-restraint. Make sure you integrate some manner of fasting into your week! Almsgiving is the opposite to that temptation to possess. It is to let go and to give rather than take. We must give alms! And prayer, this is the most important of all. Prayer, not just saying prayers, but the worship of almighty God and the loving adoration of him in recognition of his Lordship over us, the total submission of ourselves to love himself. This is the opposite to the pride which would rather usurp the place of God in our lives.
One final word. As I’ve mentioned, all this can only be done in Jesus Christ. We are not stoic philosophers. On our own power and merit, all the things I’ve mentioned will be fruitless and the desert will remain. But with the grace of Jesus, new life can begin to grow. In practice, that means every single one of us needs to go to confession during this Lenten season. You don’t have to come to me, I won’t be offended. But we need to receive the Sacrament of Penance. That means I myself will have to drive to another town to find a priest, as I often do. For without the sanctifying grace that Jesus gives us in confession, there’s no way that the power of the resurrection can be applied to our souls. My friends, this season of Lent is before us, and it has wonders in store for those who are willing to take it seriously. What will you choose?