We entered into the great and holy season of Lent with Ash Wednesday last week. The fact that just about everyone loves Ash Wednesday confirms what Cardinal Sarah says in his book God or Nothing: to be atheist is quite impossible. Everyone confesses at some point the futility of these few years on earth and senses that only God can save us from returning to mere dust.
The collect for Ash Wednesday expresses the season with particular precision: “Grant, O Lord, that we may begin with holy fasting this campaign of Christian service, so that, as we take up battle against spiritual evils, we may be armed with weapons of self-restraint.” Lent is armed conflict. We enter into a campaign of military service; we prepare for battle armed with weapons of self-restraint. It is just this kind of desert warfare that Christ enters into on the First Sunday of Lent. The Spirit drives him into the desert to meet the enemy at close quarters. He takes with him only the weapons of self-restraint; He talks to no one, he sleeps on the ground, and most importantly, he refuses food and drink. On the fortieth day the Bible tells us, with typical Semitic understatement, Jesus was “hungry.” At his weakest, Jesus confronts Satan.
The Mount of Temptation
I want to share with you an extraordinary experience I had on Ash Wednesday. 45 of us were making a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and our last day happened to be Ash Wednesday. We were scheduled to visit Jericho, where Jesus had been baptized and then driven by the Holy Spirit into the desert. Notice that Our Lord begins his public ministry by retreating into the desert, and then confronting Satan: first things first, right? We had come to the same place on the first day of Lent, and I convinced the tour director to let us make a side trip past Jericho to the “Mount of Temptation.” It is a desert cliff above Jericho, a few miles from the Jordan River, the site of Christ’s temptation after his 40-day fast. Built into those cliffs halfway up is a Greek Orthodox monastery, the extreme south end of which is found a chapel with a rock in the far wall. This is the rock on which Lucifer placed our Lord to show him all the kingdoms of the world, which he would give him, if only Jesus would submit himself to Satan.
Members of His Body
We spent some time in that little chapel, overlooking the vast fertile plain of Jericho, the Jordan River, and the Dead Sea. I’ve asked many of our pilgrims which place of our pilgrimage struck them the most—Bethlehem, Nazareth, Jerusalem? They all, to my surprise, said it was the Mount of Temptation. Christ was tempted in every way that we are, writes St. Paul. We found Christ’s testing cathartic for our own temptations. “If in Christ we have been tempted,” writes St. Augustine, “in him we overcome the devil…. He could have kept the devil from himself; but if he were not tempted he could not teach you how to triumph over temptation.” I know that when I am tired, hungry, abandoned, or at the end of my rope, Satan will appear with “solutions.” Just get something to eat if you are depressed, he will say, or level some power over someone, or jump off a cliff and see what happens. The world, the flesh, and the devil offer us all sorts of solutions to our problems, but Jesus did not swerve one inch from God’s will. Perched on the Mount of Temptation, we sensed that we too could keep faithful to God’s will by clinging to Christ. If He could do it, I can do it, because I am after all a member of his own body.
Lent is a time for war, desert warfare, not only with the devil but with our own flesh and the world. War requires discipline and self-denial to reach our objective. Let us ask our Holy Mother, who trained her will from the moment she made her Fiat to the angel Gabriel, to enter this campaign of Christian service joyfully, armed with the weapons of self-restraint.