Lent begins this coming Wednesday, March 2, ‘Ash Wednesday’. A long period of forty days – six weeks – that ends on Holy Thursday. A journey towards Easter, one of the highest moments of the Liturgical calendar and spiritual life. These are times of recollection, reflection, and purification – through fasting, almsgiving and prayer. In this way, following the example of Christ, the Catholic mortifies the temptations imposed on him in his ‘desert’ of daily life in which he pilgrimages towards eternity.
Scholar Dr Brant Pitre, distinguished research professor of Scripture at the Augustine Institute, in one of his reflections on Lent, (available on his YouTube channel), reminds us that Jesus in the desert – the beginning of His ministry – takes the path of humility following the Father’s plan rather than the devil’s temptation. Pitre points out that for a first-century Jew, Jesus’ three temptations in the desert call to mind another (Biblical) episode in which a person was tempted with three temptations: the fall of Adam and Eve in the book of Genesis which we will read on the first reading for the first Sunday of Lent.
Pitre asks: “So why did they fall? What were the reasons for the fall? A lot of times people like to speculate on that, like: well, how could they possibly have fallen if they were in paradise and in a state of grace? Genesis tells us. It says the reasons for the fall were threefold” [Genesis 3:6].
For the professor, this narrative is of paramount importance, because the ancient Jews recognized those three reasons for the fall, as the three root causes of all of the sins in the world. “In fact, they actually had a concept of what later goes on to be called the triple concupiscence or the threefold lust,” adds Pitre, who claims to see this idea of a triple concupiscence in the first letter of John the Evangelist: “For everything in the world – the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life – comes not from the Father but from the world” (1 John 2:16). Thus, Pitre stresses here the three temptations: pleasure, possessions and pride or vanity – the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life.
In reading the book of Genesis, what does all this have to do with Jesus? Pitre, who asks us the question, goes on to say, “Well, if we look at the gospel now, what does Jesus do in the desert? He’s not just a new Israel out in the wilderness, he’s also a new Adam so whereas Adam was tempted in the garden of paradise, now Jesus the new Adam is tempted in the desert. Because that’s what our sin has done, it turns the paradise of creation into a desert. And just like Adam was tempted by the devil in the book of Genesis, now Jesus is tempted by the devil in the desert. And just as Adam had three temptations: lust of the eyes, lust of the flesh, pride of life, so now the devil hits Jesus with the same three temptations. But unlike Adam, Jesus conquers it.”
At this point, the professor asks: “What does all this have to do with the season of Lent?” He adds: “As the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) tells us in paragraph 538 and 539” – “The Gospels speak of a time of solitude for Jesus in the desert immediately after his baptism by John. Driven by the Spirit into the desert, Jesus remains there for forty days without eating; he lives among wild beasts, and angels minister to him. At the end of this time Satan tempts him three times, seeking to compromise his filial attitude toward God. Jesus rebuffs these attacks, which recapitulate the temptations of Adam in Paradise and of Israel in the desert, and the devil leaves him ‘until an opportune time’.
“The evangelists indicate the salvific meaning of this mysterious event: Jesus is the new Adam who remained faithful just where the first Adam had given in to temptation. Jesus fulfils Israel’s vocation perfectly: in contrast to those who had once provoked God during forty years in the desert, Christ reveals himself as God’s Servant, totally obedient to the divine will. In this, Jesus is the devil’s conqueror: he ‘binds the strong man’ to take back his plunder. Jesus’ victory over the tempter in the desert anticipates victory at the Passion, the supreme act of obedience of his filial love for the Father.” (CCC 538; 539).
So, what are we really supposed to do during Lent? The academic poses the question in closing: we go into the desert with Jesus, to do battle with the devil. To fight temptations and to be tested in this time of trial and purification.
In the follow-up, the professor asks us another question: how can we do this during Lent? – “For most of us, in the contemporary context of Lent, it tends to simply reduce it, to a time of abstinence, right? Like abstaining from chocolate, or coffee. But actually, what the Church calls us to do during Lent, are three things: pray, fast and give alms.”
Pitre recalled that in the readings of Ash Wednesday, Jesus teaches in the Sermon on the Mount about fasting, almsgiving and prayer. He stresses here that the Church speaks to us about these issues on the first day of Lent, because this is what we are called to do during this period.
Pope Benedict XVI, on 29 September 2005, in his message for Lent 2006, told us that Lent is a privileged time of interior pilgrimage towards Him Who is the fount of mercy. “It is a pilgrimage in which He Himself accompanies us through the desert of our poverty, sustaining us on our way towards the intense joy of Easter. Even in the ‘valley of darkness’ of which the Psalmist speaks [Ps 23:4], while the tempter prompts us to despair or to place a vain hope in the work of our own hands, God is there to guard us and sustain us. Yes, even today the Lord hears the cry of the multitudes longing for joy, peace, and love,” the Holy Father said.
Taking up Pitre’s reflection, he reminds us that we are God’s creatures and that we need his help; we need his grace – “The church is giving us Jesus directives. We want to pray more, we wanna fast and we want to give alms more to the poor, so that we can unite ourselves to the mystery of Jesus in the desert. It’s going to be a time where you really are united in a closer way to Jesus and to the mystery of Jesus in the desert.”