Jennifer Halling, OSB
This year, the Gospel reading for the first Sunday of Lent begins with these words: “At that time Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil.” However, before we can consider the implications of the temptation of Jesus, we need to recall the galvanizing event that led Jesus to retreat to the desert in the first place. As Matthew says,
“After Jesus was baptized, he came up from the water and behold, the heavens were opened for him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming upon him. And a voice came from the heavens, saying, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.’”
At his baptism, Jesus experienced a revelation: he heard God say to him directly, “You are my son, and I love you.” Jesus immediately retreated to the desert because he needed time alone to absorb this stunning message and integrate it into his being.
The first sign that Jesus was successful in accepting and living out his newfound identity was the way he responded to temptation. We may think it curious that the Spirit would lead Jesus into the desert to be tempted, because typically we associate the Spirit with giving gifts and providing counsel. However, facing temptation is one way we learn who we really are. Thus, by leading Jesus to a place where he would experience temptation, the Spirit gave him the opportunity to affirm the implications of what it means to be a beloved child of God.
- And so, when Jesus was tempted to believe that he needed to provide his own sustenance by turning stones into bread, he refused. He now trusted that his heavenly father would provide for his needs, because that is what loving fathers do.
- When he was tempted to test the extent of God’s care and protection, Jesus refused, because he now understood that God’s love for him was boundless.
- When he was tempted to attain earthly power and wealth by worshipping that which was not God, Jesus refused. People who know in the depth of their being that they are loved by God are already powerful and wealthy beyond measure.
For the rest of his life, Jesus lived out of his knowledge of his true self: he belonged to God and was loved by God. As Pete Buttigieg says, “When you know who you are, you have a center of gravity that can hold you together when all kinds of chaos is happening around you.” We could see Jesus living out of his center of gravity as the beloved son of God when he was surrounded by crowds desperate for healing, for guidance, for a messiah. We could see it in his calm acceptance of suffering in the midst of his arrest, trial, and sentencing. His extension of God’s love to others was too great a threat to the people who wanted to hang onto their earthly power and wealth, so they put him to death. However, God’s love cannot be contained and burst forth anew in Jesus’ resurrection as the Christ.
So what does this Gospel say to us as we enter into the season of Lent?
Like Jesus, we are invited to enter into a 40-day process of contemplating God’s love for us and integrating it into our being. If we have not had a direct experience of God’s love, as Jesus did, Lent is a time to gently consider what is preventing us from recognizing and accepting that which is constantly being offered to us.
With the tool of prayer, we can recommit ourselves to listen to God’s voice; with the tool of almsgiving, we can sharpen our recognition of the providence of God and share it with others; and with the tool of fasting, we can remove the attitudes and clutter that crowd our lives and prevent us from being one with God. When we face the temptation to be selfish, to hoard, to gossip, to rely on our own resources, to judge, or to envy others, we can recognize it as an opportunity to test our understanding of our true selves as beloved children of God. We can use these 40 days to make a concerted effort to live in conscious loving union with God, which is a moment by moment choice and surrender.
It’s time to enter the desert, but as we do our work of contemplation, integration, and surrender, we can take comfort in knowing that we are not really alone; angels are by our side to minister to us, often in the guise of the community members sitting by our side in chapel and at the common table.