Sunday, March 1, 2009
A meditation on the Temptation of Christ
This is the time of the year, Lent, when we commemmorate the days that Our Lord spent in the desert: fasting, meditating and praying in advance of beginning His three-year mission, that was to culminate in His saving death. And being tempted, and overcoming temptation: three temptations above all, representing the world, the flesh and the devil. Here is the account that St. Luke the Evangelist gives:
And Jesus being full of the Holy Ghost returned from Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, Being forty days tempted of the Devil. And in those days he did eat nothing: and when they were ended, he afterward hungered. And the devil said unto him, If thou be the Son of God, command this stone that it be made bread. And Jesus answered him, saying, It is written, That man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God. And the devil, taking him up into an high mountain, shewed unto him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time. And the devil said unto him, All this power will I give thee, and the glory of them: for that is delivered unto me; and to whomsoever I will I give it. If thou therefore wilt worship me, all shall be thine. And Jesus answered and said unto him, Get thee behind me, Satan; for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve. And he brought him to the holy city, and set him on pinnacle of the temple, and said unto him, If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down from hence: For it is written, He shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee: And in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone. And Jesus answering said unto him, It is also said, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God. And when the devil had ended all the temptation he departed from him for a season.
Now Luke was writing his gospel in an effort to be historically accurate, and we are bound, I think, to accept what he said as history. There is room for metaphorical interpretation about other things, but not about this. Christ was really tempted, in a real desert, by a real devil, and he really overcame these temptations. And in so doing, he gave us an example of faith and virtue that is eternally relevant, to our age and to every age- and, indirectly, told us much about the nature of good and evil. Here we see, more clearly than anywhere else in the Bible, the conflict of God and the Enemy in the most personal form, confronting one another. We can learn much about physical and biological phenomena by studying how organisms function in their absence, and likewise we can learn much about good by observing evil, and vice versa. It was a minor 'unclean spirit', a pitiful little demon, who was the first to recognize Christ for who and what He was: Let us alone; what have we to do with thee, thou Jesus of Nazareth? art thou come to destroy us? I know thee who thou art, the Holy One of God. We could not fully understand light if there was no such thing as darkness, and we cannot understand God fully without considering his Enemy: For the light shineth in the darkness, and the darkness comprehendeth it not.
One interesting thing about the three temptations is that none of the gifts that the devil offered was intrinsically a bad thing. The devil offered him the gift of creating food out of nothing, of winning converts through miracles, and of reforming the world by achieving temporal power. Each of these gifts was something that, in the fulness of time, Christ would attain, either in his own person or through his disciples. There would come a day when Christ would create food not just for himself but for five thousand followers- hungry and poor men, women and children, who probably seldom had enough to eat, and who craved someone who would nourish their bodies as well as their souls. Then he took the five loaves and the two fishes, and looking up to heaven he blessed them, and brake, and gave to the disciples to set before the multitude. And they did eat, and were all filled: and there was taken up of fragments that remained to them twelve baskets. There would come a day, too, when people all over the world would be converted by a miracle. He refused, on the pinnacle of the temple, to prove himself by triumphing over physical injury: but there would come a day when he would triumph over death itself, and where the miracle of Easter would convert a third of the world. There would come a day when, for a time, the eagle was united with the dove, and the Cross flew over Constantine's legions and their heirs for a thousand years, and left, even today, the lasting idea that love and mercy should govern the world no less than the church; and we are told by the Beloved Disciple that there will come something even greater, a day when out of his mouth goeth a sharp sword, that with it he should smite the nations: and he shall rule them with a rod of iron. Such was the dream of Joachim of Fiora, of Thomas More, and of all the other men and women throughout the age who have dreamed of an age when men shall be ruled by love.
The Ultimate Enemy is, if nothing else, possessed of deep wisdom- and worse, wisdom untrammeled by love, justice, or mercy. He was wise enough not to offer Jesus temptations that were intrinsically immoral- to feast on the finest delicacies of Rome, to debauch himself with girls and young boys in the brothels of Athens, to drape himself in purple like a Babylonian king and send men to die in the gladiatorial arena. Rather, he tempted him with things that were intrinsically good. So often, evil consists not in choosing evil things: it consists (sometimes) in pursuing things that are good, but in the wrong place, under the wrong circumstances, at the wrong time. If Jesus had fed himself in the desert, he would yielded to the needs of his flesh instead of overcoming and conquering them, and would not have restored- on behalf of fallen humanity- the proper balance between body and spirit that was lost with the fall. (Obviously I don't believe in a literal Adam and Eve, a literal garden of Eden: but I do believe that there was a day, very early in human prehistory, when the first beings to have been gifted with a conscious and potentially immortal soul, make the decision to seek their own desires instead of God's, and in doing so fell from grace and became subject once again to the flesh). If Christ had accepted the temptation to prove His divinity by a miracle, then He would have robbed humanity of the gift of faith: for faith cannot exist where there is proof. For faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the knowledge of things unseen. If Christ had, then and there, accepted kingship He could not have died the death he was destined to die, and could not thus have saved humanity. And he could not have fully redeemed and ennobled humanity in the way He meant to, if He had ruled over them instead of inspiring Christian leaders to emerge from within humanity itself.
Consider, again, what this tells us about the Tempter. If this temptation is to mean something, if the life of Christ is to mean something, if the Crucifixion and all the suffering and bloodshed that has taken place in the name of Christ has been "worth it", then the temptation must have been real. If it wasn't, if the devil was shamming and Christ knew it, then his temptations have nothing to say to ours: our tragedy becomes his farce, and He is nothing more than the divine trickster. If Christ truly shared our suffering, if He really shared our nature, if He really shared our temptations, then the evil power must have been offering him something he desired, and He must have chosen to give something up for the sake of the higher good. And if the temptation was real, then the gifts that the devil offered must have been real too. When the devil offered him all the kingdoms of the world, I believe he was offering a gift that he really possessed. He was smart enough not to lie to Christ, and he told him the truth.
The truth, but not all the truth. This world belongs to both God and the evil power: therein lies the problem of evil, as it has been posed for thousands of years, and it's a problem to which I have no solution. "I make the darkness and the light" said Isaiah to Cyrus; but in this, I think, Isaiah was wrong and Cyrus, the Zoroastrian, was right.
Did He who made the lamb make thee? said Blake of his 'Tyger', and his question remains unanswered. In the first century, people looked at the fall of Jerusalem as evidence that this world was under the domination of evil; people thought the same at the fall of Rome in the fifth century, the coming of the black plague in the fourteenth century, the fall of the greatest city in Christendom in the fifteenth century, and all the black atrocities that our human race has committed against each other in the last few centuries. Indeed, if God rules this world and orders it to His pleasure, then how can we explain things like the fall of Constantinople? The Holocaust? How can we explain the AIDS virus, earthquakes, hurricanes? And how can we explain evolution itself? Is such a bloody, wasteful process, 'nature red in tooth and claw', the world that the Father made through the agency of the Son and his angels? Is a world in which the fittest survive and mercilessly crowd out the unfit, truly the 'best of all possible worlds'?
I don't think so, and I think in this regard the Christians of the first century were wiser than the fuzzy religious believers of today who see the world as a happy, joyous place. St. Luke was right: this world is under the domination of evil, and when the evil power offered Christ his place at the head of it, he was making a genuine offer. This universe was created by God, of course: the Nicene creed says so, as does the Gospel of John. Maker of heaven and earth. But from its beginning, evil has had a place in it, and eventually that evil grew and grew until everything that we see today- the process of evolution that underlies biology, the processes of entropy that underly chemistry- is in some sense tainted and corrupt.
But in the long run, this doesn't matter. We have an assurance that something in this world still persists with the memory of the one who created it. We have the assurance that one day this world will be made whole, and that every temptation that Christ denied at the hand of the devil- to create food, to overcome death, to rule with a rod of iron- He will accept at the hand of the Father. And we have the assurance that this world- this world where our bodies disobey our souls and cry out for things that aren't good for us, this world in which evil men rule over the good, and send innocent people to slavery and death, this world from which God seems so distant and millions of us cry out for miracles that we may believe, and don't find them.....that ultimately, all this will pass away and be transcended. In this world, says Christ, ye shall have tribulation. But fear not: I have overcome the world.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be. Amen.
Posted by Hector at 12:08 PM