First Sunday of Lent – Year A Gn 2:7-9; 3:1-7; Ps 51:3-4,5-6,12-13,17; Rm 5:12-19; Mt 4:1-11
If you go to Spain, to the city of Barcelona, you will find a tall mountain with a view that overlooks the entire city. There is a stunning shrine dedicated to the Sacred Heart on the top, a shrine built by Saint John Bosco, and, from the mountain’s peak, there is a beautiful view of the other mountains, the city, and everything for miles around. Precisely because of its beauty, the mountain has an odd name: the place is called Tibidabo
, I will give you
, in Latin. The reason for this name is that the Spaniards who live in the area were so proud of its beauty and splendor that they claimed that when the devil tempted Christ, he brought Him to that place, to the mountaintop, and showed Him the splendor and beauty of Barcelona and the area. It was there, they said, that Christ was told Tibidabo
, I will give you all this. If Christ had been shown just the hills of Galilee, He could have easily said no, but, claim the Spanish, had He been able to say no to the beauty of their mountain and valley, well, then He must truly be the Son of God!
The point is not that Barcelona is really the most beautiful place in the world (I don’t want to get into any arguments about that point!), but rather it should make us think of our own temptations, how the devil proposes to us the false delights and pleasures of the world in order to forsake the eternal ones. As we begin the time of Lent, the Church in each year (be it A, B, or C) proposes today’s Gospel for us regarding the temptations that Christ underwent. We can see how Christ conquered the devil and set for us an example to follow.
Often we are afraid of our temptations, but that isn’t really necessary. We know that Christ has already conquered death and sin, as Saint Paul tells us, and in the Gospel we see that He has also conquered temptations. It’s for this reason that Luke tells us Christ went into the desert “filled with the Holy Spirit,” or, as Matthew says, Christ was “led by the Spirit to be tempted.” Saint John Chrysostom describes this very beautifully in a homily, where he writes: “With a view to our instruction He both did and underwent all things; He endures also to be led up there, and to wrestle against the devil: in order that each of those who are baptized, if after his baptism he have to endure greater temptations may not be troubled as if the result were unexpected, but may continue to endure all nobly, as though it were happening in the natural course of things. [This is why] you took up arms, not to be idle, but to fight. For this cause neither does God hinder the temptations as they come.”
It is by means of the temptations that the devil attacks us with, and that God permits him to unleash, that we learn many things. We can consider just three: temptations keep us humble, they make us grow spiritually, and they assure us that we are walking in the right path.
First, temptations keep us humble. In the midst of temptations, we realize how weak we are, and we see our limitations. In those moments, oftentimes we are even ashamed of the devil’s temptations. We are offended that he thought that would we fall for something so low and so base. Nonetheless, he tempts us because he knows that we are weak, and that, if we don’t pay attention, or do everything in our power to avoid sin, we will fall.
Second, temptations also help us to becomes spiritually stronger. Often in the Bible we hear, for instance, how God “refines or purifies silver,” for example in the book of Malachi: “[God] will sit refining and purifying silver, and he will purify the Levites, Refining them like gold or silver, that they may bring offerings to the LORD in righteousness.”
For us, that image of purifying silver doesn’t mean much, since most of us don’t have experience in refining metals. However, it is the perfect model for understanding temptations. The process of refining uses high temperatures to burn off all the impurities present in a piece of metal, because metals like silver are often mixed with other things. However, the process for silver is particularly involved and delicate, because the refiner has to put the metal right in the heart of the flame, knowing that too much time in the fire ruins the metal. So, how does the refiner know exactly when the silver is ready? As one Catholic Biblical scholar writes [A. Robinson, CBQ, 11 (1949), 189f.], “there is a dramatic moment when [the silversmith] knows that all dross has gone from it. Peering over it, the silver suddenly becomes a liquid mirror in which the image of the refiner is reflected [in other words, when the refiner can see his face in it]. Then he knows that his task is done.”
In a similar way, God allows us to be tested by fire, that is, by the trials and temptations of this life. We all have bad habits, vices, and sinful ways than need to be purified. Rather than destroy us, which would happen if we were not held in the hands of an all-powerful, all-loving God, the trials slowly burn away all that is not God, reinforcing our choice of Him time and again. That process of purification is complete when we bear the image of God, when we become a perfect reflection of His likeness.
Lastly, temptations assure us that we are on the right path to God. This might seem odd, but this is the way it is, as Saint John Chrysostom writes that by means of temptations “that wicked demon, who is for a while doubtful about your desertion of him, by the touchstone of temptations may be well assured that you have utterly forsaken and fallen from him.” This is the way it is: the devil wants us to sin so that we can be in hell with him forever. If the devil sends us temptations, it’s because we still don’t belong to him definitively. If we were already firmly in his grasp, there would be no need to send us temptations. In fact, the story is told of a monk who once went to speak to his abbot. The monk was happy that he hadn’t had any temptations for weeks, and the abbot simply replied: “You fool; if the devil doesn’t send you temptations, it’s because you are already in his hands.”
In each of the three temptations, we can consider our own lives. In the first, the devil tempted Christ to use His powers to benefit Himself. Each one of us has our own talents and gifts: how do we use them to serve others? Christ also teaches us, as Saint John Chrysostom writes, that “though we hunger, indeed, whatever we suffer, [we must] never fall away from our Lord.” Are we really willing and able to sacrifice anything and everything in order not to fall into sin?
In the second temptation, to throw Himself down from the Temple, the same saint tells us that we are taught that “we must overcome the devil, not by miracles, but by forbearance and long-suffering, and that we should do nothing at all for display and vainglory.” We can ask ourselves, am I really patient in the face of temptations, especially the temptation to be impatient? How quickly do I reject those temptations to vanity, vainglory, popularity, and ambition?
In the last temptation, that of adoring the devil as if he were God, we’re reminded that any sin sets something in place of God, be that something material, or even something spiritual. When we do this, we really set the devil in God’s place. So, we can ask ourselves: who or what takes the most important place in my life? Is it God, or is it something else?
Today, as we begin our Lenten journey, let’s ask, through the intercession of Mary, our Lady of Sorrows, for the grace to take advantage of our temptations so that we might grow in humility and holiness.
Saint John Chrysostom, Homily 13, 2.
Saint John Chrysostom, Homily 13, 2.