Sunday, March 14, 2010

"Take thy stand upon the summit of the temple...."

The second temptation of Our Lord (actually the third, in Luke) is a very interesting one. The three temptations can, in general, be taken to correspond to physical, intellectual, and spiritual temptations. Or they can be associated with the three sources of temptation in Christian liturgy, called picturesquely the World, the Flesh, and the Devil. This second temptation, the offer to demonstrate His Divinity through a spectacular miracle, corresponds to mental temptation, and to the temptations of the World.

"And [the Devil] brought him to Jerusalem, and set him on a 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 said, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God." Luke 4:9-12.

Tradition suggests that the 'pinnacle of the temple' (literally, 'little wing') did not correspond to the actual highest point in the temple, but rather to the roof of Solomon's portico, a point on the southeast wall of the Temple overlooking the Kidron Valley and the Judaean Desert (some translations use 'parapet' instead of 'pinnacle'). Eusebius of Caesarea, in his 'Church History', tells us that this was the very parapet on which James the Just, the cousin* of Jesus Christ and the first Bishop of Jerusalem, would be made to stand on the day of his execution. The early authorities, quoted by Eusebius, tell us that the Jerusalem authorities said to St. James, "Take thy stand, then, upon the summit of the temple, that from that elevated spot thou mayest be clearly seen, and thy words may be plainly audible to all the people," thus seeking his support in putting down the nascent Christian movement through publicly denying Christ. James, however, when faced with temptation on the self-same parapet on which his cousin had stood some forty years earlier, chose this moment to confess his faith, and to declare that 'Christ Himself sitteth in heaven, at the right hand of the Great Power, and shall come on the clouds of heaven." And having confessed his faith at the last, he was thrown down from the temple wall, and his broken body was stoned at the foot of the temple.

The story of Christ's temptation was certainly circulating in 69 AD when St. James was killed, as the Gospel of Luke had probably been written many years earlier, and so it's near certain that St. James knew of this story, and that it was running through his mind as he was faced with such a similar temptation to that which his cousin, Our Lord, had faced forty years earlier. As Christ had been tempted to test his faith in the Father, St. James was tempted to deny his faith in God the Son, and with the example of Our Lord in his mind, he chose to honour his faith rather than betray it. History moves in cycles, and repeats itself in strange and mysterious ways; Marx said, 'first as tragedy, the second time as farce', but there was nothing farcical about the martyrdom of James.

This second temptation has a curiously modern ring, not least because it is an intellectual temptation, appealing to an intellectual age which more and more seems to have lost its faith. Asking for evidence of the existence of God is a perfectly legitimate endeavour, but too often we ask without any hope of hearing a positive answer, and already half-convinced in his heart that He isn't there. The Enemy was asking Jesus to do something similar- to ask for proof of God's presence and favour not at some vague time in the future, but here and now. He was asking Jesus to challenge God to reveal himself, to _demand_ proof instead of humbly awaiting for it. And if we approach God in that spirit, we haven't yet taken the steps outside ourselves, and the steps into a state of humility and recognition of our own smallness, that allow us to perceive Him. God doesn't reveal himself to us in our states of demanding pride, but in our moments of humble dependence. Jesus already had proofs of God's favour, for example during His baptism in the Jordan; what the Enemy was tempting him to do was to forget what he knew, to abandon his experiences of the divine presence and favour that he had had in the past, and to wilfully choose to give in to his doubts.

God the Father had given plenty of evidences of His favour to Jesus Christ over the last thirty years of his life; what He hadn't given was any evidence that he would preserve His Son from death. It was hinted at in the Persians' gift of the myrrh, but Jesus had had no previous reason to believe, prior to the Passion, that God would preserve him and allow him to triumph over death. This was necessary; for if Christ was to remain perfect Man as well as perfect God up until 'all was finished', it was necessary for him to remain perfect in all human virtues including the virtue of faith, and for that reason it was necessary that he not know, for sure, whether death would be the end for him (for none of us really know this, until we finally experience death itself). If Christ had given into the Enemy's temptation and thrown himself off the parapet, one of two things would have happened. Either he would have known, for sure, that God would protect him, and he couldn't have experienced the Cross in doubt and agony, and thus could not have participated fully in the human experience. Or at that moment the hypostatic union would have ended, and the entire purpose of the Incarnation would have been obviated. And either way, the Enemy would have won.

This second temptation tells us that the Enemy, too, can quote scripture to his purpose. Here he does so by taking a verse from the Psalms of David out of context, ignoring the fact that it refers to accidents, not to deliberately suicidal falls, and ignoring the broader message that 'you shall not test the Lord thy God'. Scripture taken out of context can be a dangerous thing, indeed, and it takes discernment to recognize it and refute it; the same wisdom and discernment that Jesus showed when he answered the Enemy's temptation with a quotation from Deuteronomy.

If we wait, and hope, for a sign from God, I think that we will eventually receive one, just as the Magi received the sign they had so long sought on the day of the Epiphany. But we will never receive the signs we seek unless we lay our hearts truly open to them; and the first step in making our hearts open to God is by ceasing to demand, ceasing to try to receive proof on our schedule, but awaiting those glimpses of the Divine that He chooses, in his own time and in his own way, to give us. The first step in achieving wisdom is, as Mary Doria Russell says in her great science-fiction books, is to recognize that 'I don't understand' is not the same thing as 'This doesn't make sense', and to recognize our own ignorance and smallness in the face of the mysteries of the universe. To seek God in a spirit of challenge, self-confidence, and intellectual pride, as if we are _entitled_ to a miracle, as if we can _demand_ a sign whenever we want one, is to not even begin to take the first step outside ourselves that would be essential to really knowing God. Like friendship, and like love, and like wisdom, you will never receive wonder and awe if you seek it for its own sake. That's the path of those who try to artificially construct mystical experiences through using hallucinogenic drugs; all they can ever get is a pale shadow of the real mystical communion with the Divine. The greatest mystical experience of which we have record, the great apocalyptic vision of John of Patmos, came to him one day after he had finished saying Mass to his congregation. For 'the wind blows where it will', and we cannot demand or expect a revelation of God in any particular moment; all we can do is be hopeful, and faithful, and wait for Him one day to reveal himself, whether it be through a still small voice or through the skies opening and the throne of God being revealed. It is in waiting, and hoping, that we experience God, and the attempt to short cut this process, to artificially seek miracles on demand, is precisely the temptation that the Enemy offered to our Lord in the wilderness, and that in His wisdom and faith he rejected, and through that rejection overcame a second time the sinful nature that afflicts all of us, and took us a step closer to our salvation.

Glory to you, Lord Christ, who in the desert experienced the temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil, and overcame them all. Praise to you, Lord Christ, who as a good shepherd wills not that a single one of your flock be lost, and shed your precious blood not merely for all of us but for each of us. All honour to you, Lord Christ, who thought never for a moment of your own good, but devoted the three years of your ministry to healing the sick, feeding the hungry, and heralding the coming of the Kingdom of God. Have mercy on us sinners, in all time of our tribulation and in all time of our prosperity, in the hour of our death and in the day of our judgment. Lamb of God, have mercy on us, and deliver us from all evil, now and in the life to come. Amen.

*You will hear some people call James the biological brother of Jesus, and thus deny the perpetual virginity of Mary the Mother of God. They are wrong. St. James and Jude are best understood as cousins of Jesus; Our Lady remained ever virgin, after as well as before the birth of Our Lord.

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