On Ash Wednesday this past week, Christians began the period of Lent in preparation for Easter. Throughout the centuries, Lent has been a very intense spiritual journey and experience for the followers of Jesus Christ, known as a special time of prolonged prayer, bodily discipline and generous giving.
Readers of the New Testament are familiar with the three graphic temptations of Jesus as related by Matthew and Luke in their Gospel accounts of Jesus in the desert. In the stories, the devil asked Jesus to attain God's glory without suffering; to allow the religious message to be misused for political gain; to negate God's rule of love through careless reading of his Word; and to see miracles not as signs of the coming rule of God, but to satisfy our appetite for the sensational.
In Matthew and Luke, the second temptation deals with the adoration of the devil rather than God. Jesus reminds the evil one that God is in control. This is so important for us to hear and believe, especially when our own temptations seem to overpower us, when everything around us might indicate shadows, darkness and evil. It is God who is ultimately in charge of our destiny.
In the third temptation, the devil asks for a revelation or manifestation of God's love in favor of Jesus. Jesus answers the evil one by saying that he doesn't have to prove that God loves him.
Mark's version Jesus does not mention three temptations, nor does it say that Jesus fasted. Mark's focus is on presenting the temptations of Jesus as part of the great struggle between good and evil, between God and Satan.
Temptation is real in the human experience. Temptation is everything that makes us small, ugly, and mean.
Temptation uses the trickiest moves that the evil one can think up. And his power is greater and stronger than our own human power. The more the devil has control of us, the less we want to acknowledge that he is fighting for every millimeter of this earth. Jesus simply didn't let the evil one get away with that.
That Jesus spent time in the wilderness shows how truly and how seriously he took on our humanity. In the desert Jesus responds to the evil one, not by denying human dependence on sustenance (food), but rather by putting human life and the human journey in perspective. Those who follow Jesus cannot become dependent on the things of this world. When we are so dependent on material things, and not on God, we give in to temptation and sin.
Jesus' desert experience raises important questions for us. What are some of the "desert" experiences I have experienced in my life? When and how do I find moments of contemplation? How have I lived in the midst of my own deserts? Have I been courageous and persistent in fighting with the demons?
Through the desert experience of Lent, we discover some spiritual space in our lives where we can strip away the false things that cling to us and breathe new life into our dreams and begin again. We come to believe that God can take our selfishness, jealousy, efficiency, isolation, cynicism, despair and the parched surface of our hope and make it bloom.
In the words of Jean Vanier: "Our brokenness is the wound through which the full power of God can penetrate our being and transfigure us in God... Yes, through our wounds the power of God can penetrate us and become like rivers of living water to irrigate the arid earth within us. Thus we may irrigate the arid earth of others so that hope and love are reborn."