In 1988, Martin Scorsese’s film The Last Temptation of Christ provoked protests outside cinemas. The depiction of God the Son entertaining temptations against the Sixth and Ninth Commandments had caused considerable indignation among believing Christians. The sensus fidei of sane Catholics warned them immediately that something was wrong with that film. Our Saviour is like unto us in all things but sin. He was never tainted with the concupiscence which is the desire of the physical appetites contrary to reason. Therefore, he could never have experienced that sort of temptation.
And yet Lent begins with an account of Our Lord suffering very real temptations during the forty days He spends in the wilderness. So what were these temptations, and where did they come from?
Scripture informs us explicitly that the temptations endured by Our Lord come from that ancient enemy of the human race, the devil. And these temptations are a challenge or a test. The devil seems to be curious about the true identity of this extraordinary person Jesus of Nazareth. “If you really are the Son of God, prove it!” he says, “Command these stones to become loaves of bread.”
How often do we not hear similar challenges addressed to the Church? What sort of God is it that allows so much of the world to go hungry while others have so much that they perpetuate a culture of waste? If God exists, and if He is to earn our respect, then surely He must prove Himself and feed the starving? And if the Church is what She claims to be, then is it not high time that She stopped troubling the world with the burden of doctrine and poured all of Her resources into eradicating inequality?
As Creator of the Universe, Our Lord has every power and every right to change stones into bread. But on this occasion of His temptation, He refuses to do so. And His reply to Satan is masterful: “It is written, man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”
Yes, God could turn whole mountains into enough bread to feed the whole world many times over. For the Lord of Creation, nothing could be easier. But such a miracle in itself would do absolutely nothing to remove selfishness or greed from a single human heart. Our Lord is not denying that we have a duty to feed the hungry – he has made it clear that our salvation depends on it. What He is saying is that on its own this is not good enough. When spiritual considerations are obliterated on account of purely material interests, then the result is catastrophic for everyone. Communism, after all, promised bread for everyone. The result was often bread queues that stretch for miles outside the bakery, and always moral and spiritual degradation.
Christ actually came into this world to do something far more wonderful than changing stones into bread. He came to change our hearts from hearts of cold stone to hearts that are on fire with divine love. If a man’s heart is withered and dead then ultimately nothing good can come from him. Once his heart is enlivened with grace, then we can be sure that he will be moved freely to distribute from his own resources to those in need. This generosity of spirit and joy in giving is one of the outward signs that our Faith is alive and that we are in a state of grace.
Leading Our Lord to the pinnacle of the Temple, Satan tells Him: “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, He will give his angels charge over you and they will bear you up lest you dash your foot against a stone.” Again, the devil wants his curiosity satisfied with a stunt, and again Our Lord refuses. He has not come to dazzle us into the Kingdom of Heaven with dizzying displays of acrobatics. The time will come soon enough when His glory fills the skies, at His Second Coming. Meanwhile, He calls us to live in friendship with Him. And as a token of this divine friendship He does something infinitely more impressive than turning stones into bread or throwing himself from the Temple into the hands of angels. He transforms bread into his living Body and Blood, before which angels fall in adoration. He effects this transformation that we call Transubstantiation so that we too might be transformed by feeding on Him, and that we, in turn, might set to work transforming this world around us.
Before the beginning of Lent, we should think of how we shall accompany Our Lord in His fasting and prayer during those forty days in the wilderness. Most importantly of all, we should think about how we show imitate his charity, whether by way of almsgiving, or visiting the sick, the lonely and the elderly. By the end of Lent, God will not really be checking to see if we have a thinner waist. He will be looking to see if we have a larger heart.
Fr Julian Large