Saturday, March 13, 2010

A second year's reflection on the Temptations of our Lord

The season of Lent- called by our Orthodox brothers and sisters, 'Great Lent'- has many purposes, but one of the most important of them is to commemorate the Temptation of Christ, the forty days that Christ spent in the desert, being tempted by the devil.

As I said last year, Luke is the most historically minded of the Gospel writers, and as Christians we are bound to accept this account as historical. Our Lord was not merely subjected to a symbolical temptation: he was really tempted, in a real desert, by a real dark spiritual power, he who was called 'the prince of this world' by St. John the Evangelist. Many Christians nowadays seek (for reasons that are beyond me) to deny the reality of the devil, but as Archbishop Charles Chaput said last year, "If we do not believe in the devil, sooner or later we will not believe in God." This is because when we deny the reality of spiritual evil, of any basic constituent of reality that is opposed to and antithetical to God, we are quickly led to blame the evil that we see around us, not on the devil but on God, and we quickly start to perceive that such a God cannot be worthy of worship. Denying the reality of supernatural evil makes not easier, but more difficult to account for real, perceptible evil, and it strengthens the force of the Problem of Evil, the rock on which the ship of faith of so many people has foundered. As Bulgakov put it in his classic work "The Master and Margarita", the existence of evil, and specifically of supernatural evil, constitutes the 'seventh proof' of the existence of God, and to deny the existence of supernatural evil is a step towards denying the existence of supernatural good.

The episode of the temptation of Christ is one of those stories that is impossible to categorize. Before I was a Christian, when I encountered the Gospels for the first time this was one of the stories which most captivated me and which I found most haunting- and most challenging. This story reads something like a myth, and indeed there are myths somewhat similar to it in the stories of Zoroaster and the Buddha. But it appears in the middle of a narrative that's unquestionably meant as literal history. Luke begins the third chapter of his Gospel in this way: "Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judaea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of Ituraea and of the region of Trachonitis, and Lysanias the tetrarch of Abilene, Annas and Caiaphas being the high priests....." which tells us that he is not intendeing that we take this as a murky myth out of the depths of the unknown past. St. Luke is paying scrupulous attention to historical and chronological detail, and leaves us in no doubt that he intends to say that these events really happened, just as the events described in yesterday's 'New York Times' really happened.

The Gospels are too mythical to be taken as mere history, and too historical to be taken as mere myth. They are both, simultaneously, the Myth made Fact, as Our Lord was the Word made Flesh. The supernatural and moral elements to the story of Our Lord's temptation are not something superimposed on the story, they are intrinsic to it, and in the temptation of Christ we see, in perfect clarity, the everlasting and eternal struggle between good and evil, between the supernatural forces of light and of darkness. But at the same time, the historical details of this account are not extrinsic or incidental to its meaning either. This isn't just the story of one example of the cosmic struggle of good and evil, such that if the temptation had gone differently there would have been others. This was the moment on which our salvation depended, the moment when Christ was faced with the same choice that had faced the first conscious and spiritually aware human beings, when they had to choose between submission or rebellion, and when he rejected the same temptation that they had accepted. As God the Word, begotten of the Father before all the ages, became incarnate at a specific moment in history, of a particular woman in a particular home, so the struggle for our salvation, between God and his Enemy, took form and shape in a particular episode of forty days' duration in the Palestinian desert. It was not for nothing that Milton focused his 'Paradise Regained' not on the Passion or the Resurrection but on the Temptation. Because this was the moment when for the first time in human history, the human and the divine wills became perfectly aligned, and when for the first time in history, human nature, in the form of the perfect Man, was restored to what it had been intended to be. "Therefore he renews these things in himself, uniting man to the Spirit," said Irenaeus of Lyons and by his obedience reversed the damage that had been done by human disobedience. And at no time was this clearer than during the temptation in the desert.

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, world without end. Amen.

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