Today is “Invocabit Sunday,” the solemn beginning of the Holy Season of Quadragesima. This Sunday ranks with Passion and Palm Sundays, such that in the Roman Church no feast day ever takes its place. Thus, at Rome and wherever else the Chair of Peter is celebrated as a 1st Class feast, its solemnity is kept tomorrow. As we begin Holy Lent, the Church places before our hearts the dramatic events of the Temptation of Our Lord. Here we learn the meaning of our holy season and its essential character as profound union with Christ: we go to the desert to fast with Jesus during Lent because we want to be wherever He is. We are in Love with Him and so we go wherever He goes. Our Love makes us willing to suffer and to die with Him so that we may rise with Him at Easter. It was Jesus’s 40 Days of fasting in the desert that caused the Roman Church to add the last four days of Quinquagesima week to her solemn fast (six weeks of six fast days in Quadragesima, plus Ash Wednesday and the other three days).
Jesus’s temptations are real and entirely external. There is nothing in Him that tempts Him or leads Him to sin. The only temptation to which He can be subject is that which comes from outside, from the devil. The devil does not know that Jesus is God. If he knew, he would not dare to tempt Him. Jesus suffers His temptations after fasting for 40 days like Moses and Elijah and feeling fully the weakness of our frail humanity. He seems to be inviting the devil into the desert for combat, challenging His opponent by revealing His weakness, only to overcome the tempter not with the power of His Divinity but with the humility of His humanity.
The three temptations suffered by Our Lord correspond to the three fundamental ways that we all are tempted. All sins, St. John teaches us, can be reduced to either the lust of the flesh, or the lust of the eyes, or the pride of life. Our Lord conquers the lust of the flesh by refusing to turn the stones into bread, even though He was very hungry. Such a miracle would have been disordered since the needs of the body ought to be fulfilled by ordinary means when they are available. He conquers the lust of the eyes (greed) by refusing to worship the devil in exchange for all the kingdoms of the world. He conquers the pride of life by refusing to make a spectacle of His divine power, thus glorifying Himself, by throwing Himself off the parapet of the temple and being saved by angels.
St. Thomas teaches us that Our Lord allowed Himself to be tempted in order to be the cause of our own conquering of temptation. In other words, because the Head of the Church and the Source of all grace has conquered every temptation, we, His members, share in that victory and can conquer in our own lives all the temptations that come our way. Jesus is the physical cause of our overcoming of temptation. Additionally, Jesus’s temptation teaches us that we are never holy enough to be past temptation. This is a sober lesson never to trust ourselves. He also gave us the example of how to conquer temptation: prayer and fasting, combined with profound humility and deep knowledge of the Scripture. Our Lord doesn’t entertain the temptations but combats them and destroys them immediately by humbly quoting the inspired Word of God.
Perhaps the most tender dimension of Our Lord’s temptation is brought out especially in the letter of St. Paul to the Hebrews: because He has been tempted in every way that we are, yet without sin, Our Lord is our compassionate and merciful High Priest Whom we can approach with confidence. His temptation makes us feel close to Him and allows us to cling to Him in love. This is ultimately the fundamental movement of Lent. We humble ourselves by prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, so that we can achieve total union with our Merciful Savior.
Fr. Joseph Previtali