Saturday, March 12, 2011

Temptation in Desert and its Twentieth Century Parallel

This a reposted blog from Janaury of 2011. If you wish to read the remaining two blogs of this series please click on the January archives.

On coming up out of the water he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit, like a dove, descending upon him. And a voice came from the heavens, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.’ At once the Spirit drove him out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan. (Mark 1:10-13)

Pope Leo XIII once said that “Christians are born for combat.” This couldn’t be better illustrated in the Gospel of Mark immediately following our Lord’s baptism: “At once the Spirit drove him out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan.” The Spirit, which had just appeared in the form of a dove over the river Jordan, “drove” or led the Son of God to his first conflict. As St. Jerome said, it wasn’t that Satan came to confront Jesus; it is more the case that Jesus went out to the desert to confront him. Being baptized into Christ and anointed by his Spirit is not only an introduction to God’s blessings; it also a calling to resist and denounce evil.

In ancient rabbinic writings such as the Talmud, a dove did not symbolize the Holy Spirit like it does for Christians; but instead, it represented Israel. To a Jewish bystander at the river Jordan, a dove descending on Jesus would have meant that he was an ideal Israelite. As a representative of Israel, Jesus set out to do something that the Israelites failed to do during the forty years in the desert; and that is being faithful to God. And to be sure, resisting the Devil and his temptations was but one important expression of that fidelity.

We only get a few glimpses of Satan in the Old Testament. A well developed system of demonology did not exist in Judaism leading up to the time of Christ. Nevertheless, the Jews did believe in his existence. From Genesis 3 where he tempted Eve to eat the fruit we know this much: He doesn’t waste his time with weaklings; as an Angel of Pride, he only goes after the best. Satan personally had designs on Eve, Job and now Jesus. From the temptation in the Garden, we learn that he cleverly uses half truths and subtle nuances to undermine God’s authority. With precision, he exploits the weakness of his prey so as to maximize spiritual casualties. No doubt, he attempts to do the same with the Son of God.

However, there is only one problem: Many Saints have taught, such as St. Catherine of Sienna, the Tempter did not know who he was dealing with. That’s right! The mystery of the Incarnation was hidden from him. This might explain the preface for all three of his temptations: “If you are the Son of God…” He simply did not know.

In any case, in each of the three temptations Satan uses, there is a presumption or a guess as to who Jesus is. And in the Gospel of Matthew, with each guess or presumption, the cost of surrender progressively gets worse. In the first temptation, there is a presumption that Jesus was God; in the second, a holy man; and in the third, a sinner. The lower the ranking, the higher the cost of the surrender; that is, if Jesus would have succumbed or surrendered.

More on these three temptations and how he employed similar ones in the twentieth the January archives.