(Readings: Deuteronomy 26: 4-10; Romans 10:8-13; Matthew 4:1-13)
Introduction to Mass
Today is the first Sunday in Lent, the Church's main penitential season. We gain an insight into the meaning of penance in the Christian sense in the gospel, where Jesus withdraws into the desert to fight and conquer his temptations and to place himself completely at the disposal of his heavenly Father.
Let's begin Mass by acknowledging our own failures to resist temptation, and by asking God to heal us and strengthen us.
This episode in Jesus' life, which took place immediately before he embarked on his public ministry, tells us something important about his vocation and also reveals something important and helpful about our vocation as his followers.
The gospel writers suggest that Jesus' sense of his vocation emerged gradually, during the long hidden years of childhood, adolescence and early adulthood.
The first half of life, which for most of us is the time when our identity, character and fundamental values take definite shape, was for Jesus a time of growing awareness about his messianic identity and vocation.
His baptism in the river Jordan, again as presented by the gospel writers, was a moment of final clarity for him. He sensed that now the period of preparation was over and it was time to proclaim God's Kingdom publicly, in preaching and healing and casting out devils. And it's at this point that he disappears into the desert to engage in what the Christian tradition has sometimes called spiritual combat.
This is one of the passages of Scripture where we have to remind ourselves that Catholics are not fundamentalists. We don't have to take literally the details of the story as Matthew tells it: the face to face conversation with the devil, forty days without food and water.
Let's not get distracted from the real significance of the event: the fact that Jesus. "led by the Spirit" Matthew says, deliberately placed himself in an environment where the temptations lurking within himself were brought to the surface and where - by giving himself over totally to God's guidance and putting his life totally at God's disposal - they were confronted and defeated.
The devil didn't try to persuade Jesus to abandon his mission. He didn't try to persuade him to stay in Nazareth, living the quiet life of a devout Jew, happily working away as a carpenter without any of the strife and sacrifice that awaited him once he left that behind.
The temptation Jesus had to face was the temptation to go about his mission but in the wrong spirit, using the wrong methods or tactics.
It was Jesus' task, as Messiah, to reveal God and God's character more completely than ever before. And the new and difficult lesson that the disciples were going to learn in the course of Jesus' ministry was that the true face of God could only be revealed through powerlessness and sacrifice, in detachment from such worldly entities as wealth and status and glamour, in love of enemies, in suffering and death. Those were the only ways Jesus could manifest the true God.
So what the devil tries to do is to persuade Jesus to turn away from the true character of God's Reign and to conduct his mission with worldly tactics, to impress people with spectacular miracles, to submit to Satan in order to dominate the world politically, to use his spiritual power or his close relationship with God to produce purely earthly commodities - "if you are the Son of God, tell this stone to turn into a loaf".
Jesus, as I say, confronted and defeated these very real temptations by resolving to depend totally on God and God's help. But, as with every other human being, we should assume that he also had to fight against them for the rest of his life. The passage says that the devil departs at this point with the intention of returning to plague Jesus again, later on.
When he rebuked Peter vehemently for suggesting that he should evade crucifixion, wasn't part of the reason for the violence of his reaction that Peter had touched a nerve and brought to the surface again one of the original temptations that Jesus faced at the outset of his ministry?
So much for Jesus' time in the desert. What about us? In our tradition the desert isn't important as a geographical place. It's important as a psychological and spiritual experience and as a necessary stage in the journey of discipleship.
"The desert" is any experience of prolonged isolation or retreat from ordinary activity and human contact. To go into the desert means to step out of our ordinary routine and to give up, for a time, all the familiar reference points in our lives that help to keep us balanced.
When we do that, what happens to us is what happened to Jesus: certain instincts and appetites and temptations, which perhaps lie deeply-buried within us, but nevertheless shape our attitudes and behaviour, come to the surface. And it's a necessary part of our spiritual development that we should, like Christ, face these temptations, turn to God for help, and defeat them.
During the early centuries of the Church's existence thousands of men and women deliberately headed for the desert, to spend their lives engaged in prayer, fasting, contemplation and spiritual combat.
In the imagery of the time they described their battles against the demons of lust, anger, jealousy and so on, and they acquired a wisdom and an expertise in the spiritual life which made their advice greatly sought-after by ordinary Christians from the towns and cities. Their own struggles and many failures made them experts in the psychology of temptation, and it gave them a great depth of understanding and compassion towards the flaws and weaknesses of human nature.
Leaving aside their picturesque language, and the issue of outside interference by demons, this experience of entering the desert is an important aspect of Christian life for every individual believer.
One of the sad features of our present society is the number of people who are forced into the desert involuntarily. There are many men and women who are leading a normal life on the surface, holding down a job and so on, but underneath, they're living lives of profound isolation.
In many instances, then, the real world for them becomes the inner world of fantasies - about money, fame, sex, violence - and because of the terrible spiritual impoverishment of out time, they're powerless to resist the onslaught of demons and temptations they meet there, sometimes with tragic results.
But for us, as Christ's disciples, we don't go blindly or uncomprehendingly into the desert. We don't go without knowing what to expect. We know the enemy we're going to meet there.
Our retreat into the desert has a definite purpose: a spiritual training. We do it to gain deeper self-knowledge, to confront the sinful motives that exist deep down in all of us, but most of all to increase our dependence on God and so acquire the sanctity and spiritual stature that we're capable of under the impact of God's grace.
St. Augustine had a prayer: God, "grant that I may know you, and grant that I may know myself". In one sentence that sums up the value, in our Christian sense, of going into the desert. So let's hope that in the six weeks of Lent we can all find ways of incorporating this important practice into our own lives as disciples of Christ.