This past Wednesday, we began this great season of Lent by smudging black ashes in the form of a cross on our foreheads. It was a sign of our weakness and sin. We have failed to live up to our great calling as children of God. At the same time, it was a sign of hope because the God who created us from the dust of the earth can recreate us through the power of the Holy Spirit. And so, recognizing our weakness, we give ourselves over to God's power. We resolve to turn away from sin, believe in the Good News, take up our cross and follow Jesus.
The first thing each of us has to face when we resolve to live by the light of God's word is the reality of temptation. No matter how earnestly we may want to do God's will, the allure of sin is rooted deeply in our souls. We will always be tempted to yield to the world and its poor substitutes for the love, peace and joy that only God can offer.
So, on this first Sunday of Lent, the Church invites us to reflect on Jesus and the temptations he faced during his forty days in the desert. This season of Lent, in fact, is patterned on the forty days Jesus spent in prayer doing battle with the evil one. This gospel passage is a treasure trove of insight for us as we face our own temptations. Jesus teaches us not only how to recognize when we are being tempted, but also how to overcome the many traps the devil tries to lay for us.
The first lesson that Jesus teaches us is that the devil attacks us when we are at our weakest. Though Jesus was in the desert all of forty days, the devil waited until the end of his fast when he was hungry, tired and light-headed to begin his attack on him. That is because the evil one is a coward. He is not willing to face us when we are at our best. Instead he waits until the end of a long day of work when we are tired. He picks on us when we are feeling down on ourselves. It is precisely at those time that we are tempted to lose our patience, lash out at others or even worse. When we are feeling lonely, tired or angry, we have to be most alert because it is then that the allurement of sin will be most strong. At those times, we must turn to God and ask for his strength to conquer temptation. It helps us to remember that the devil is basically a coward and once we call upon God to come to our assistance, he will flee.
And so, the first lesson Jesus teaches us is that the devil waits until we are weak to attack us.
The second lesson that Jesus teaches us is that temptation is strongest in our lives when we forget who we are. It is interesting that Satan begins every temptation by saying to Jesus, "IF you are the Son of God....". He thinks that he can make Jesus forget who he is and why he was sent by the Father. He tries to do the exact same thing to us. Through our baptism, each of us is a daughter and son of God. What the devil wants is for us to forget the dignity we have as children of God. He wants us to trade it in for the empty promises and fleeting pleasures he offers. He wants to put into our minds the idea that we cannot trust God, that he does not have our best interest in mind or that he has abandoned us. It is at these times when we should call to mind our baptism and the promises our parents made for us which we renew each year at Easter to renounce sin and to live in the freedom of the children of God. Once we imagine the waters of baptism pouring over us to cleanse us from sin and call to mind how Jesus suffered and died for us, we will receive the strength necessary to resist any temptation.
And so, the second lesson Jesus teaches us is that when we remember that we are children of God, the devil keeps his distance from us.
Finally, the third lesson Jesus teaches us is that Scripture gives us the power to rebuff Satan's advances. To every temptation the devil proposed, Jesus was able to produce a quote from the Bible to counter it. If we are to be successful in our struggle with sin, we too must have at the tip of our tongue verses from Scripture to set our minds back on the right track. For instance, many people when they are tempted to despair, call to mind the words of Psalm 23: "The Lord is my shepherd, there is nothing I shall want." Saint Augustine whenever he was tempted by lust, would quote the following verse from the letter to the Romans: "Put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the desires of the flesh." As part of our daily prayer, we too should spend time memorizing our favorite passages from the Bible so that they come to mind when we are weak. When we have the Word of God planted firmly in our mind and on our heart, the devil will flee from us as swiftly as darkness retreats from the light.
And so, the third lesson Jesus teaches us is that by calling Scripture to mind, we will find the strength to defeat any temptation.
During this life, we will always be beset by temptations. But we are given the power by God to overcome them. If we should fall, we know that we can turn to Jesus and find forgiveness and mercy. We read in the letter to the Hebrews that we have a Savior who is able to sympathize with us because he was tempted in every way we that we are though he never sinned. With confidence, then, we can present ourselves to Christ to receive his Body and Blood knowing that we will receive forgiveness for our sins, strength in exchange for our weakness and hope in place of our fear.