• Gen 2:7-9; 3:1-7
• Psa 51:3-4, 5-6, 12-13, 17
• Rom 5:12-19
• Matt 4:1-11
“He that seeks not the cross of Christ,” wrote St. John of the Cross, “seeks not the glory of Christ.” Put another way, a cross-less Christianity is a lie of the devil. Lent, which leads us to Holy Week and the crucifixion, is a challenging reminder of this difficult but ultimately glorious truth.
The first Adam, shaped from dust by the Creator, walked and talked with God. But then he was tested and fell in the garden. Having listened to the serpent, he succumbed to the temptations of self-will and self-love, rejecting the will and love of God. Seeking his own glory, he was banished to the dust and dryness of the world, separated from friendship with God.
Through Adam, St. Paul explained to the Christians in Rome, “sin entered the world, and through sin, death.” Sin and death have ever been with us ever since; the temptation to seek our will is constantly with us.
Severed from God’s life, what could mankind do? Look to God’s gracious gift, “the one man Jesus Christ”, the new Adam. The co-eternal Word was not created, but “begotten”, having no beginning. But although all things were created for him and through him (Col 1:15-17), he chose to be born into the fallen, desperate world of man. After being baptized in the Jordan (Matt 3:13-17) and revealing his divinity, he was then led by the Spirit into the desert to walk and talk and be fed by the Father.
Then, after forty days, he was tested by the devil. Would he, like the old Adam, listen? Would he, like the first man, give in to the lures of the tempter?
He did listen, of course. The fact is, in this world it is impossible to escape temptation. And Jesus, being fully man, really was tempted: “For because he himself has suffered and been tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted” (Heb 2:18; cf. 4:15). But while the old Adam did not refute the words of the serpent (and so opened himself to disaster), the Word-made-flesh rebuked the father of lies. He knew what he was facing, and he did not hesitate or second guess when the devil misused Scripture. Jesus went into the desert to battle, to fight and renounce the devil and the passing glories of this world. He knew that true glory is not found in power, but in obedient, faithful sonship.
Much has been rightly made of how Jesus rejected the same temptations—hunger, selfishness, rebellion—that had overwhelmed the Israelites in the desert (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, par 538-40). But the Gospel shows how Jesus emphatically distinguished himself from the many self-proclaimed messiahs, false prophets, and political zealots so common in first-century Palestine.
Turning stones into loaves of bread would have not only satisfied his hunger, but been evidence of magical powers—a most attractive quality for anyone seeking worldly attention. And commanding God to keep him from harm if he threw himself from the temple parapet would have marked him as a powerful prophet or visionary able to control the will of God. The third temptation was the most direct and blatant. If Jesus had given up everything for political power, he would have shown himself to be a political revolutionary intent only on earthly glory and temporal power. “The devil,” writes Craig S. Keener in his commentary on Matthew (InterVarsity, 1997), “offered Jesus the kingdom without the cross, a temptation that has never lost its appeal.”
But Jesus is not a magician, a self-serving prophet, or a political zealot. He is the Son of God who came to do the Father’s will (Jn 6:38-40). The new Adam, in the garden of Gethsemane, prayed that the Father’s will would be accomplished. Tested in both desert and garden, he was glorified by and through the cross—the instrument of death which is, wrote Pope St. Leo I, “the true ground and chief cause of Christian hope.”
(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the March 13, 2011, issue of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)