Saturday, March 13, 2010

"Not by bread alone...."

"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." Luke 4:3-4.

This first temptation recalls a number of other episodes throughout the scriptures. Most clearly, it's a recapitulation of the commandment given to the first couple in the garden, to fast from a particular fruit. (This is myth, not history, of course, and Adam and Eve didn't literally exist; it is, though, a myth charged with meaning. It would have immense and invaluable meaning even as a totally fictional story, if its purpose was to foreshadow Christ. Adam was the myth, the shadow; Christ was the truth, the substance). It also recalls the manna in the wilderness, and it foreshadows the feeding of the five thousand, and the miracle of the Eucharist in which Christ transforms the sacramental bread and wine into His Body and Precious Blood.

Why would Christ refuse this temptation? And what sets it apart from the miracle that he did carry out, the multiplication of the loaves and the fishes to feed five thousand people? Several things. First of all, the Enemy, in his diabolic and malevolent wisdom, knew that he could not tempt Christ with evil things, or with the base things of this world; he had to tempt Him with good things. This is the form that temptation so often takes, the choosing of a lesser good in preference to a higher good. As St. Augustine puts it, sins are misdirected virtues.

Bread is a good thing; what the Enemy offered Christ was sin because it consisted in choosing the good of bread at the wrong time, under the wrong circumstances, in such a way that it would have ruined the very purpose for which Christ had come to earth. And as sin taints and sullies even its own satisfaction, the very taste of the bread would have become sour in His mouth, and burning in His stomach, as he realised that in accepting that first temptation in the desert, He had vitiated the reason for which he had been born on earth, and deepened the rift between God and Man. For the enemy loves to tempt us to sin and then turn the pleasure of the sin to cardboard on our tongue, to win our souls and give us nothing in return. The Lord, of course, works quite differently, for he is the source from which all good things come. No truly good thing, in the fulness of time, will be denied to those who wait. The day would come when Christ was given the power to turn stones into bread, but in the desert, as he trembled in front of the Enemy, and as all creation was quiet as it awaited for his answer, the answer on which our salvation depended, his time had not yet come, and he knew it.

Not merely an issue of timing was involved. Christ had the power to multiply bread for the feeding of others, and to turn water to wine to enliven a wedding festivity. But He would not use his powers for mere selfish gain, not even when he hungered in the desert and longed for bread, or when He hung on the cross, crying out, "I thirst" (John 19:28), and had to be given a few drops of sour wine on a sponge. He who endured in his own body, the piercing of hands and feet, nevertheless had such compassion on the wounds of others that in the very night before he was crucified he healed the ear of the soldier wounded by St. Peter. He who descended to hell in the day of his death, nevertheless as he hung dying, remembered the repentant thief next to him and promised him, 'This day shalt thou be with me in paradise' (Luke 23:43). No doubt he was often sick, and hungry, but the Gospels give us no accounts of any occasions on which he healed himself, or fed himself (and surely such an occasion would have been startling enough, and worthy of inclusion in a historical and apologetic account). He was always dependent on the charity of others, and on the good fortune that God the Father sent his way. He no doubt led a very hard life, one whose hardships were not limited to the Passion, for it was foretold that he would be "a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief" (Isaiah 53:3). The Enemy, for his part, is relentlessly focused on himself, and strives to devour and consume all things, to gather them and direct them towards his own pride and self-gratification. In contrast the nature of God is to love, to be other-centered, and to spread His affection and compassion to others; for the very nature of God is a community of Persons united to each other in the bonds of perfect love, within the Holy, Consubstantial, and Indissoluble Trinity; thus Augustine says of the Trinity, "But love is of some one that loves, and with love something is loved. Behold, then, there are three things: he that loves, and that which is loved, and love", and these three things correspond to the Persons of the Trinity. God is always, relentlessly, focused on the good of the other, on sharing his goodness and his perfection with those he has created. This was why he created our world, this was why he chose the angels for honour and glory, this was why he watched over our evolution as a species and, in time, blessed us with immortal souls, and this was why when He took human form, and was born as a man, he had no thought for himself, but only for others. For he told his followers, "Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment?" (Matthew 6:25) and we cannot suppose that he, perfect God and perfect Man, commanded something other of His disciples then the code he lived by himself.

A third thing, too, differentiates the miracle of the loaves and the fishes from the temptation that Christ was offered in the desert by the Enemy, and which He rejected. At Bethsaida, Our Lord did not turn stones into bread: rather he multiplied bread, turning five loaves into many "And Jesus took the loaves; and when he had given thanks, he distributed to the disciples, and the disciples to them that were set down; and likewise of the fishes as much as they would" (John 6:11). This is the nature of the work that God does in this world. He makes use of His own creation, and of the work that His creatures have done. His miracle was dependent on the labour that farmers, bakers, and fishermen had done in preparing the loaves and fishes; he took advantage of their labour and made use of it, multiplying it and transforming it to achieve something they could never have achieved on their own. But his work was dependent on theirs, and had they refused to catch the fish or to grow the wheat He would not have done it for them. For God lives by the rules he himself has set down, and one of those rules is that He will not supplant our free will, and that though he will work hand in hand with us, our cooperation and assent is as necessary to His work of healing and salvation as the grace that he sends down from heaven. This is why people who expect God to solve the problems in this world with a snap of His fingers are so tragically wrong. He can do anything with us and for us, but He demands our labour and cooperation as well. As the Muslim proverb goes, if we take two steps towards God, He runs a mile towards us, but we need to take those steps to begin with.

Discernment, and the ability to tell whether we are being called to do something good or something evil, is a vital ability, and something fraught with risk. But whenever we are faced with such a challenge, we can do no better than to search our own consciences, and look to the example of Jesus. He who was willing to do the work that his Father gave him in transforming little bread into much bread to feed others, was unwilling to accept the Enemy's temptation to transform stones into bread to feed his own needs. And in that difference we can see some of the clues that can help us distinguish good and evil in our own lives, and in the world. Let us all try to remember the nature of temptation, this Lent, and strive to overcome it.

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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