First Sunday of Lent: Jesus in the Wilderness

Sunday 1 March 2020

Archbishop Peter A Comensoli

Homily: 1st Sunday in Lent (Year A)
There’s a cartoon floating around on the internet where you see the hands of a woman holding a post-it note with a hastily scribbled message on it, which reads:
Dear Mum,
Just off to the desert to contend with the Devil.
No need to worry.
See you in 40 days.
J (xo)

While the cartoon makes out as if Jesus was simply off on a bit of a boy’s adventure, it does reveal something of the intentionality of the time of struggle and temptation that he would go through. As we heard at the beginning of the gospel, Jesus was led by the Spirit out into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He did not just find himself in the desert where things then happened to him; he’d gone there deliberately, and with full knowledge about what would happen. Those forty days were indeed a chosen time of testing.

In understanding why Jesus did this, it might be helpful for us to recall that he was baptised in the Jordan immediately before he was driven into the wilderness. In other words, Jesus went out to contend with the Devil on the strength of his Heavenly Father’s affirmation, armed with the confidence of the Holy Spirit.

It is worth asking why it is that God would send his Son into the heart of temptation, as the very first thing he was called upon to do in his public mission. Why not wait until the Devil presented himself as the contender for humanity’s soul – why go running towards that which brought about our fall? Part of the answer to this question lies in the purpose of Jesus’ mission. God took on our humanity so that he could enter into the heart of our frailty, and from there restore us to our divine image. As St Paul said today: If it is certain that through one man’s fall so many died, it is even more certain that divine grace, coming through the one man, Jesus Christ, came to so many as an abundant free gift. To receive this gift, Jesus needed to go to where the gift could be received – so, he went to our fallen and corrupted humanity, to confront the death of sin, and to offer the grace of life.

The other part of the answer as to why Jesus started his mission by contending the Devil lies in the nature of the three temptations he faced. Each of the temptations presented to Jesus is about having power over the world in which we live – the power to overcome our personal needs, the power to overcome the bounds of nature, and the power to exercise authority over others. Each of these temptations is worldly focused but involves attempts to overcome the world. We might describe this as Jesus being tempted to be of the world – to live a worldly life; but not in the world – to claim a power over our humanity. By the end of his life and just before his final temptation in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus would make plain to his disciples at the Last Supper that they were to be in the world, but not of the world, the opposite of the corrupted vision of the Devil for the world.

The gift of Christian faith is the gift of seeing our humanity from within the kingdom of God, as a witness to the world of human affairs – to be in this world of ours, but not to be moulded of it. Jesus was sent into the wilderness by his Father so that we would receive from his life the grace to live this way.
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