There is an embarrassing story my family loves to recount every Christmas. It is, of course, about me. I was very small, perhaps in first-grade. The only remaining present for me under the tree was from my aunt. When I opened the beautifully wrapped package and discovered a sweater - hand-knitted, no less - I tossed it to the ground and broke out in tears. What I had wanted more than anything else was a little toy fire truck. And no one had given it to me ... not even my aunt.
In hindsight, I know that the sweater was worth so much more in time and thoughtfulness. My aunt knitted it with love, in exactly the right size, and in a color she thought would be just right for me. But I didn't get my fire truck. I was ready to settle for the lesser rather than the greater gift.
I know it seems odd to begin my Lenten column with a Christmas story. I do so because the Lenten Sunday Gospel cycle always begins with the account of Jesus' temptation in the desert. And one good way to understand temptation in our lives is to think of it as an inclination to substitute the lesser for the greater, the superficial over the real, the fleeting rather than the lasting, the shallow instead of the deep, the bad over the good.
Let's look at the Lord's three temptations for a moment. The first, to change stones into bread, is not so much a temptation to indulge His appetite, but rather to substitute the lesser for the greater, that is, bread for the Word of God. God gave the Israelites manna in the desert not only to satisfy their physical hunger, but to teach them that real life is dependent on His powerful Word. Jesus affirms this principle when he quotes Deuteronomy, "Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God." Perhaps here is a Lenten summons to each of us to blow a little dust off the family Bible and give more attention to prayerful reading of Scripture at home.
In the second temptation, Satan tries to lure Jesus into substituting Satan's ways for God's ways, making of Jesus not the humble, suffering Messiah the Father wanted Him to be, but a performer, one who would engage in spectacle and thrill the crowd. Throwing Himself off the pinnacle of the temple to be caught by an angel would catch the crowd's attention. But it was not the Father's way for His Son. Is there a call here to us to review the quality of virtue in our lives, particularly the virtue of humility, of humble submission to God's will for us?
The third temptation has Satan attempting to seduce Jesus into substituting worldly power and glory for God's power and glory. Satan suggests that Jesus can have that power, that glory, simply by worshiping him. Jesus knows that the power and glory will be paradoxically in His acceptance of suffering and death on the cross. Are we being invited here to reflect on what it is that we worship in the priorities of our lives? Perhaps to accept a deeper share in Christ's suffering by entering through compassion into the pain of others?
All three temptations are to substitute a lesser "good" for a greater. In each case, Jesus triumphed, and so can we.
We have begun our Lenten journey. Our season of Exodus from Lent to Easter is underway. In its centuries old tradition, this first Sunday of Lent asked us to reflect on the dynamics of temptation, sin and grace in our own lives ... to recognize anew that sin is real, in our world, in ourselves ... to appreciate our need for forgiveness and new beginning.
We are tempted to sin every day in one way or another, to choose what is against God's will. St. Augustine tells us that "our pilgrimage on earth cannot be exempt from trial. We progress by means of trial. No one knows himself except through trial, or receives a crown except after victory, or strives except against an enemy or temptations."
Lent calls us to wake up to this reality, and to open wide our hearts to the wondrous, liberating grace of God that comes to us through the sacraments of penance and Eucharist, and through prayer, fasting and works of charity. Together, let's heed the call to grow in holiness and discipleship. It is important for us individually, and it is important for us together as Church.
Listen to the Lord Jesus: "This is the time of fulfillment ... Repent and believe in the Gospel."