A Divine Lesson in Combatting Evil

Our Lord Jesus Christ, the supreme Model of victory over hell, teaches us how to pass through temptations unharmed, without falling into futile debates with the devil.

Gospel of the First Sunday of Lent

Filled with the Holy Spirit, Jesus returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the desert for forty days, to be tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and when they were over He was hungry. The devil said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live on bread alone.’”

Then he took Him up and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world in a single instant. The devil said to Him, “I shall give to You all this power and glory; for it has been handed over to me, and I may give it to whomever I wish. All this will be yours, if You worship me.”

Jesus said to him in reply, “It is written ‘You shall worship the Lord, your God, and Him alone shall you serve.’”

Then he led Him to Jerusalem, made Him stand on the parapet of the Temple, and said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, 10 for it is written: ‘He will command His Angels concerning you, to guard you,’ 11 and: ‘With their hands they will support you, lest you dash your foot against a stone.’”

12 Jesus said to him in reply, “It also says, ‘You shall not put the Lord, your God to the test.’”

13 When the devil has finished every temptation, he departed from Him for a time (Lk 4:1-13).

I – Mysterious Paradoxes in the Saviour’s Life

The life of Our Lord Jesus Christ is full of mysterious contrasts. Since He is God Himself, Creator of the whole universe, He chose for Himself the most beautiful, the purest, the most perfect of mothers, Mary Most Holy; nevertheless, He wanted to be born in a poor and insignificant cave and have for a cradle the manger in which animals fed.

At His entry into this world, Heaven showed portentous signs through Angels who appeared, singing: “Glory to God in the highest; and on earth peace to men of good will” (Lk 2:14 Vulg.). Nevertheless, the inhabitants of Bethlehem refused to give lodging to the parents of the Saviour, excluding themselves from this wondrous event. From the regions outlying the city of David, only the shepherds came to the manger to adore Him.

Later, the Child Jesus was honoured by the Magi from distant regions, from whom He received precious gifts. But shortly afterwards He had to flee to Egypt, because Herod wished to kill Him. When at last He was able to return to Israel, He settled in little Nazareth, where He spent thirty years in intimate union with Our Lady and St. Joseph.

When He reached adulthood and was baptized in the Jordan, Heaven exalted Him once more when John saw the Spirit descend upon Him in the form of a dove, and the voice of the Father was heard: “Thou art my beloved Son; with Thee I am well pleased” (Mk 1:11). After this moment of glory, which to human eyes would seem ideal for inaugurating a public mission, the Divine Master, instead, went alone into the desert and remained there for forty days.

His desert retreat teaches us divine lessons in combatting evil, and invites us to meditate on the graces which Jesus then purchased for us for our perseverance. Today’s Liturgy provides us with an excellent opportunity to explore this compelling aspect of the Redeemer’s life, for Lent is a time not only for penance, but also for grateful remembrance of the benefits we have received from Him.

II – Forty Days in the Desert, for Love of Us

At the end of the second chapter of his Gospel, St. Luke sums up in a single sentence the period which began with our Lord’s discussion with the teachers of the Law in the Temple at age twelve, until the moment of His Baptism: “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature, and in favour with God and man” (Lk 2:52).

In the episode contemplated on this First Sunday of Lent, we find the Saviour in the fullness of His age, “about thirty years of age” (Lk 3:23); therefore, with developed physical and intellectual faculties and, in His human nature, enjoying a more intense relationship with the Holy Spirit than when He was a Child. Exercising the freedom inherent to His nature, He had, throughout those three decades adapted His gestures, attitudes, words and thoughts to the beatific vision in which His Soul permanently remained, so that His divinity shone more and more in His Body, which became increasingly capable of reflecting God.

Surely He foresaw the occasions of great commotion that would occur with the spreading of the Good News in Israel, when He would go about doing “good and healing all that were oppressed by the devil” (Acts 10:38) through His preaching, miracles and counsels. Although the home of the Holy Family was a habitually recollected place, where tasks did not absorb attention to the detriment of supernatural things, out of love for us Jesus chose to leave His Most Holy Mother, departing from the tranquil and elevated dwelling of Nazareth, to immerse Himself in the silence and solitude of the desert.

Detail of the “Temptations of Christ”,
by Fra Angelico – San Marco Museum, Florence

Extraordinary docility, supreme love

1Filled with the Holy Spirit, Jesus returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the desert…

The desert of Judea, besides the desolate appearance typical of arid zones, possessed a rugged landscape, in that solitary epoch, with mountains, hills and deep valleys, as well as numerous recesses in which snakes, hyenas and lions, among other wild beasts, took refuge. As is usual in these regions, the temperature falls sharply at night, and Our Lord would have suffered long hours of cold and days of scorching heat in alternation. Perhaps the rain also troubled Him during this period, although it is a rare phenomenon there.

For almost six weeks the Saviour wandered about on that sandy terrain, sometimes standing by a rock, sometimes sitting on a stone, sometimes kneeling, His arms raised in prayer, and looking up to Heaven, always solemn and grave, in continual contemplation.

It is interesting to note the term used by the Evangelist to indicate the of the Paraclete’s action with Jesus: He “was led by the Spirit.” Not as the Eternal Word, but as Man, He let Himself be led with extraordinary docility and supreme love, showing us what our attitude should be as His disciples. Thus, the consideration of this first verse suggests to us a prayer: “O Divine Holy Spirit, guide our souls! Break down, if necessary, all our interior obstacles. Make us attentive, loving, faithful and enthusiastic. Lead us, like Jesus, to an ever greater divine perfection!”

Temptation is not a symptom of spiritual crisis

…for forty days, to be tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and when they were over He was hungry.

Due to a common misapprehension, we have the notion that the devil’s action in this passage of Our Lord’s life was limited to the three suggestions described by the Evangelists. But St. Luke’s text reveals something quite different, and exegetes rely on it to affirm that the Redeemer subject to constant diabolical assaults “for forty days”, of which the threefold temptation constituted the end.

Detail of the “Temptations of Christ”,
by Fra Angelico – San Marco Museum, Florence

The archetype of penance, Jesus fasted absolutely, as not even St. John the Baptist dared in his admirable rigour. He was certainly sustained by a miracle that prevented Him from collapsing from lack of food, but that did not alleviate His sufferings of hunger. An important lesson for us, especially in these times when asceticism seems to have disappeared from the face of the earth. Mortification, besides reviving the thought of original sin and personal faults, and drawing our attention to the gravity of our acts, tempers the will, balances the passions, detaches the soul from the things of the world, arouses its fervour and dispels lukewarmness.

The spirit thus disciplined is prepared not only to soar to great heights in prayer, but also to overcome the prince of darkness, who especially attacks those who advance along the path of holiness. This is one of the fundamental aspects of this passage: it teaches us that temptation is something normal and does not imply a crisis or spiritual decline; on the contrary, it often indicates excellent progress achieved by the soul, as was the case with Christ Himself, against whom the devil returned to the charge even after forty days of unsuccessful attacks.

Our Lord treats the devil with contempt

The devil said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live on bread alone.’”

Satan, with the insight inherent to his angelic nature, had already noted in Jesus an extraordinary power. Suspecting that He was the Messiah, but not aware that He was God Himself, he wanted to test His power in order to discover His identity. He also wanted to skillfully lead Him astray, inciting Him to material attachments, especially to money, symbolized by the stone and the bread.

There could be no more favourable conditions for Our Lord to perform such a prodigy. Besides human need (for He was in fact hungry), He could easily obtain any kind of food from that stone or even without it, availing Himself of His divine omnipotence, capable of creating anything out of nothing. For Him, who in Cana would provide the bride and groom with the best wine of the feast by transmuting the water collected in the jars, and who would later satisfy thousands of people by multiplying five loaves and two fish, it would be very simple to perform the miracle proposed by the devil. However, precisely because it comes from this accursed angel, Jesus not only refuses the suggestion, but also cuts the matter short.

The Judaean Desert (Israel)

If, on the one hand, it is indispensable to pay attention to the cunning character of the father of lies and to execrate him and his perfidious tactics, on the other hand, we must be delighted with the way Jesus proceeds. He rises above temptation and despises it, giving an answer that shows how much His divine gaze dwells on material bread only in a vague and fleeting way, because He is intent on the true food, which is the Word of God.

We should imitate this supreme model in the face of the snares set up by the enemy of our salvation: never to look upon them with complacency, nor even to consider them. Like everything that comes from hell, temptation is vile and degrades the soul that has no horror of it. However, if we adopt the strategy taught by the Divine Master, we will emerge from these conflicts strengthened and with a greater appetite for supernatural goods.

Incisive and devastating response

Then he took Him up and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world in a single instant. The devil said to Him, “I shall give to You all this power and glory; for it has been handed over to me, and I may give it to whomever I wish. All this will be yours, if You worship me.” Jesus said to him in reply, “It is written ‘You shall worship the Lord, your God, and Him alone shall you serve.’”

The devil, having been frustrated in his first attempt, now presents a trap designed to excite human pride, so often manifested in the vice of ambition. Throughout history, how many potentates have taken the delirium of possessing and dominating to extremes, committing all kinds of injustices, violence and follies in order to always conquer more, and even, in some cases, to be worshipped as gods! How many nations destroyed and how many persecutions caused by this accursed passion!

Noble victor, Our Lord Jesus Christ again reacts to this temptation in a direct, incisive and devastating manner, quoting the words of Scripture. By recalling the precept of worshipping God and serving Him alone, enshrined in Deuteronomy, He points to the need to be upright in love, never allowing our hearts to be attached to worldly goods and honours.

Never enter a discussion with Satan

Then he led Him to Jerusalem, made Him stand on the parapet of the Temple, and said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, 10 for it is written: ‘He will command His Angels concerning you, to guard you,’ 11 and: ‘With their hands they will support you, lest you dash your foot against a stone.’” 12 Jesus said to him in reply, “It also says, ‘You shall not put the Lord, your God to the test.’”

It is impressive to see to what extent the Saviour was willing to be tempted out of love for us, even allowing the evil spirit to carry Him up to the top of the Temple. Although we find it somewhat astonishing that a creature should have such power over God Himself, something similar occurs with the Eucharist, in which Jesus is at the mercy of the ministers who take Him, for example, to the sick in hospitals, even to the extent, sadly, when they are priests who are unworthy or deliberately sacrilegious.

From Our Lord’s two previous answers, the devil perceived that he was dealing with someone very well versed in the Scriptures, and that He was able to quote them with propriety. Cunningly, he also decided to resort to the sacred text, without being aware that he was speaking with its very Author.

By mentioning a passage from Psalm 91, Satan again aimed at inciting pride, this time touching the strings of the instinct of sociability. He wanted to instigate Jesus to do something great, to amaze the crowds, and to this end he tried to instil an excessive desire for the esteem of others, as if to say: “What will the others think, seeing Thee fall from the air and land quietly beside the Temple? They will all admire Thee! What a triumph!”

How many times does the unrestrained desire to be valued by others lead man to thoughtless acts, which end in disaster and frustration!

The Divine Master dismantles this last ruse with a very simple and clear passage from the Old Testament, teaching us not to enter into discussion with the devil at the moments when he exploits our self-love: “You shall not put the Lord, your God to the test.”

The temptation overcome, the battle continues

13 When the devil has finished every temptation, he departed from Him for a time.

Humiliated and defeated, the tempter withdraws, but not definitively, only “for a time.” He will return, with different wiles, because those used in the desert had achieved nothing.

It is the same with us, as St. Peter warns: “Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking some one to devour” (1 Pt 5:8). If, by misfortune, the soul gives in, the devil intensifies his demands still more, changing the way he presents them so as to push the sinner into new depths of evil. When, on the contrary, the person resists, the blows of the evil one become more and more useless and fleeting. Whoever, in the midst of the struggles of the spiritual life, tries to be perfect in the likeness of the Redeemer will, like Him, enjoy peace, liberty and victory.

III – The Best Defence Against the Snares of Satan

Our Lady of Succour – Basilica of the Holy Cross, Florence (Italy)

Until the coming of Our Lord into the world, the Chosen People were bound to the Law, which indicated the path of holiness, but did not provide the strength to follow it. From the moment that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14), a new supernatural vitality began to circulate in souls thirsting to reach the lofty goal of Heaven: grace, by means of which we are able to overcome every temptation. If we have this help, we have nothing to fear, as St. Paul says: “I can do all things in Him who strengthens me” (Phil 4:13).

The great obstacle to our always being triumphant over the devil is not, therefore, in our weakness, nor in the eagerness of evil to try to bring us to perdition, but in the fact that we no longer place our confidence in God. It is a real folly to want to employ human qualities and strengths as an essential instrument, or sometimes the only instrument, in the battle against the infernal regions.

Therefore we have an absolute need to approach the Sacraments as often as possible, to have recourse to the mediation of Our Lady and the intercession of the Saints, our heavenly patrons and to seek the company of the Angels; in short, to keep our first attention on the supernatural throughout the day.

God promises to sustain those who entrust themselves to His care, and He accompanies them as a Father through difficulties and hardships, as the Responsorial Psalm for this Sunday sings: “Because he clings to Me, I will deliver him; I will set him on high because he acknowledges my name. He shall call upon Me, and I will answer him; I will be with him in distress” (Ps 91:14-15).

In sum, today’s Liturgy invites us to fight the good fight, following in the footsteps of Our Lord Jesus Christ, with a loving faith in His strength. He overcame Satan in the desert and who will also overcome him in our souls. However great our concessions to sin may have been, let us offer to the Redeemer this Lent our desire to make reparation for everything, abandoning forever all ties with hell.

Let us listen to the advice that the Divine Master gives us in this Gospel: “My child, learn from Me: when Satan tempts you, put Me between you and him. Instead of considering the horror of evil in order to drive it away, think of the grandeur of good, and ascend to it. Think of Me, think of my Mother, and be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” 

 

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