We are at the First Sunday of Lent, which ought to remind us that the first thing we need to get straight in life is our relationship with God. These days, the Almighty is often overshadowed by many of life’s pressing undercurrents. So it becomes of great importance that we pay careful attention to the particular set of readings the Church has chosen for us today.
“Bow down in his presence” are the final words of the reading from the Book of Deuteronomy. Bowing down in the presence of God is the appropriate posture for one who knows that he or she is not God. It is not an expression of servility, but a recognition of reality. This is the door that opens up for us the way to living the life of faith.
When people think – consciously or unconsciously – that they are somehow equal to or even greater than God, they try to turn everything they desire into the sheer necessities of life, as the Devil wants Jesus to do in the Gospel. But Jesus answers the Devil with the words of Scripture, from the Book of Deuteronomy, “It is written, man does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” This sets everything in proper perspective; God first, and then the necessities of life.
Interestingly, God’s “word” is emphasized because God’s words are a form of His presence. Even as we trace all these textual references, we should also keep in mind that Jesus is the Incarnate Word. What we have here is more than a hint that we might spend some time reading the Scriptures – God’s words – and thereby strengthen ourselves against temptation during Lent.
There are also those – we see it every day on the world stage – who think that they are divine and so spend their lives looking for power and glory – the attributes of God. When the Devil challenges Jesus to worship him in exchange for power over all of the cities of the earth, Jesus again simply goes to Scripture, because God has already spoken on this very question: “you shall worship God alone and him alone shall you serve.” This is another reference to Deuteronomy, the Book of the “Repeated Law.” Moses was listing God’s requirements for his people.
Lastly, there are those who test God’s patience out of spite. The Devil wanted Jesus to throw himself down, in effect risk suicide, and force God to bear him up through his angels. If Jesus died at the wrong time, God’s plan for mankind would come to nothing. Jesus had an answer from Deuteronomy for that temptation too: “you shall not put the Lord your God to the test.”
With this third answer to his temptations, the Devil departs, foiled by the truths about how mankind lives before God, as contained in the Old Testament and pronounced again by Jesus Himself. The Devil will return at the Last Supper to whisper in the ear of Judas, but for the moment, he has been defeated.
It’s interesting that St. Thomas Aquinas comments that most of our temptations do not come from the Devil but from our own egoism. That is the real trouble with thinking that we are like God. Remember that this was how the Devil tempted Adam and Eve in Paradise: “You will be like gods.”
Nevertheless, temptations are an inescapable part of life. To recognize this is already to be on the path to resisting them. And we have to be conscious of the power of temptation in everyday life, not just in exceptional moments. The events of Jesus’ “ordinary” life – his quiet years, working privately, in his family home in Nazareth – as well as his public ministry, throw light on how we can live a faithful life. Christians ought to appreciate both kinds of faithful living and practice them, day after day, even if no one notices. God notices – and approves.
The foundations of human life are, of course, very much in the hands of God. It is God who grants increase in the crops (the theme of the First Reading); God is our Refuge (Psalm); God has given his angels charge of over human beings – “They will guard you in all of your ways.” (Psalm) These are all things to bring back into our thoughts and prayers during the trials of daily life because they offer us inexhaustible help.
Besides these reminders of what it means to be a human being, there is the teaching that lies at the center of the readings. In the words of Saint Paul: “you must confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead.” This saying has pride of place in the hierarchy of truths that the Church lays before us today. It leads to the glorious promise of Christianity. If you do these things, then “you will be saved.” Do we truly appreciate the full extent of that promise?
We cannot all become contemplatives, at least not in the usual sense (although it would be great if more of us did). But even contemplatives do many things in the course of their day. So they learn to live in a contemplative state when they are washing the dishes, plowing the fields, caring for their brothers or sisters. In fact, they do the so-called mundane things even better because at every moment they bow under God’s mighty hand.
“Bow down in His presence.” And a Blessed Lent!
*Image: The Temptation of Christ by the Devil by Félix Joseph Barrias, 1860 [Philbrook Museum of Art, Tulsa, Oklahoma]
You may also enjoy:
+James V. Schall, S.J.’s On the Nations
Fr. Thomas G. Weinandy’s Lead Us Not into Temptation, But Deliver Us From Evil