Why did Jesus have to go into the desert?

On Ash Wednesday, my wife was speaking to one of her co-workers who was confused by the ash crosses she was seeing on people’s heads that day. She took the opportunity to tell her friend about Lent and how it represents Jesus’ 40 days spent in the desert. Her friend replied, “Well…why did Jesus have to go into the desert?”

A deep and profound question, especially coming from someone who isn’t Catholic. Lent comes and goes each year, but how often do we actually think about why Jesus went into the desert in the first place?

It’s no coincidence that there are 40 days in Lent; as the Catechism states: “By the solemn forty days of Lent the Church unites herself each year to the mystery of Jesus in the desert” (CCC 540). The season of Lent is meant to draw us into to Christ’s temptation in the desert; not only spiritually through prayer and almsgiving but also physically through periods of fasting and denying ourselves temporal pleasures.

The Temptation of Christ is told in the fourth chapter of Matthew’s gospel. Every Christian likely knows the story; following his baptism, Jesus is led by the Holy Spirit into the desert, where he is tempted by Satan for 40 days. Again, there are no coincidences in Jesus’ life, and it’s certainly not by chance that Jesus went into the desert immediately after the Holy Spirit reveals who Jesus is: “After Jesus was baptized, he came up from the water and behold, the heavens were opened [for him], and he saw the spirit of God descending like a dove [and] coming upon him” (Mt 3:16-17).

Temptation is a recurring theme of the Christian life; in fact, it was Adam and Eve’s failure to resist temptation that caused sin to enter the perfect world God made in the first place. The three temptations which Christ experienced in the desert echo the temptations that Adam and Eve gave into at the Garden of Eden: eating forbidden food, false worship and testing God. The main difference, of course, is that Jesus rebuked Satan with each temptation and relied completely and utterly on God the Father to withstand them. He was tired, hungry and weary, just as any of us would be from wandering in the desert, but even in his humanity, Christ prevailed.

When Jesus’ time in the desert came to an end, the story closes: “Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and ministered to him” (Mt 4:11). This brings us back to the question: Why did Jesus go into the desert? The answer is twofold: In withstanding the devil’s trials, Christ fulfilled what Adam could not, even in his fallen state as a man, thus becoming, as St. Augustine puts is, a “Mediator in overcoming temptations, not only by helping us, but also by giving us an example.” In other words, Jesus becomes a New Adam and redeems the failure of man to obey God’s commands. Secondly, and more importantly, Christ went into the desert to prove that he is who he says he is; namely, that he truly is the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who has come to take away the sins of the world, who has come to do his Father’s will. As Origen puts it, Christ showed the devil how “by means of the various vices, he was the lord of the world.”

As the season of Lent winds down and the Easter Triduum approaches, reflecting on Christ’s time and temptation in the desert serves as a guiding beacon of hope. He, too, was tempted, just as we all are; yet he proved that through steadfast prayer and total reliance on God the Father, temptation loses its power.

Painting: Briton Rivière, The Temptation in the Wilderness, 1898

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National Catholic Register
Summa Theologiae

COMING UP: Sin, suicide and the perfect mercy of God

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I love my hair stylist. 

She’s a devoted Christian. So, when I see her, we tend to have much deeper discussions than the usual gossipy hair stylist sessions. And, because it’s a small shop, the discussions often branch out to the other people within earshot, waiting for their appointments or waiting for their color to process. Because she tends to attract a smart and faithful clientele, the discussion is always interesting. 

Yesterday, at my bimonthly appointment, we somehow got onto the topic of suicide — specifically, the insidious way that it spreads among teenagers. One suicide often leads to another, which leads to another. I made the comment “It is demonic.” 

At that point, a woman in the waiting area chimed in. “I disagree. I’m Catholic. It used to be a mortal sin, but they changed it. It’s not any more. It’s mental illness.” 

If a nice Catholic lady at my hair salon could be confused about this, I figured perhaps some of you out there may be as well. Which made me think perhaps it’s time for a little review on the nature of sin — both in general, and specifically as it applies to suicide. 

First, sin in general. The fundamental point here is that the Catholic Church has no power to decide what is a sin and what isn’t. It’s not like there’s a committee that meets periodically to review the list of sins, and decide if any need to be promoted from venial to mortal, or demoted from mortal to venial, or dropped from the list entirely. 

Sins are sins because they are outside of God’s will. And they are outside of God’s will because they have the potential to do tremendous damage to people created in His image and likeness, whom He loves. We know they are sins because it was revealed to us in Scripture, or it has been handed down from the time of Christ in sacred tradition. Sometimes the Church must apply these timeless, God-given principles to new situations, to determine the morality of technologies undreamt of in ancient times. 

The Church has the authority to do that because she received it from Christ, her bridegroom. And once she does declare on a subject, we believe it is done through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. So the Church isn’t going to change her mind. Something can’t be a sin, and then suddenly NOT be a sin. 

“But,” you ask. “What about eating meat on Friday? That was a sin, and now it isn’t.” This is an example of a discipline of the Church. Eating meat has never, in itself, been an objectively sinful behavior — on Fridays or any other day. But the Church was calling us, as Jesus calls us, to do penance. And the Church selected that penance as something we could all, as a Church, do together. The sin was never in the ingestion of the meat. It was in disobeying the Church in this matter. This particular discipline has been dropped. But it doesn’t change our obligation to in some way do penance for our sins and the sins of the world. 

Now, on to suicide. It is obvious that something must have changed in the teachings of the Church. Because, in the olden days, a person who committed suicide couldn’t be buried with a Catholic funeral Mass. And now they can. So what gives? 

Here’s the situation. Taking innocent human life is always a grave evil. (I add the “innocent” qualifier to distinguish this discussion from one about self defense, or about the death penalty — which in a sense is self defense. But those are separate discussions.) God is the author of life, and it is He who decides when our lives will end. To usurp that power always has been, and always will be, a grave moral evil. 

But there is an important distinction we must understand. There is the objective gravity of the sin — the nature of it, and the great damage done by it. Then there is the question of the individual’s moral culpability of that sin. In other words: a great evil was done. But is the person who did it liable to judgment for it? Or were there extenuating circumstances that mean that, while the evil was indeed done, the person who did it was somehow functioning in a diminished capacity that reduces or eliminates their moral responsibility? 

For a person to be culpable for a mortal sin, three conditions must be met. First, the objective act must be gravely sinful. Second and third, the person committing the sin must do so with full knowledge of the sinfulness of the act, and full consent of the will. In the question of suicide, we have learned to much about the psychological condition of a person driven to such a horrible deed. The instinct to self preservation is strong. In order to overcome it, the mental and/or physical suffering is frequently very intense. There may even be, as my friend at the salon mentioned, mental illness involved. All of this can drastically reduce a person’s mental and intellectual capacity to make rational decisions. 

And so, while an objectively horrifying act has occurred, God may very well have tremendous mercy on that person’s soul, given the extreme states of agitation and pain that led up to the act. 

Know that I write all of this as someone who has lost one beloved relative and several friends to suicide. And I am tremendously optimistic in my hope that they are with God. Not because they didn’t do something terrible, or that what they did was somehow justified. But because the God who loves them sees their hearts, and knows that pain and suffering can drive people to acts they wouldn’t possibly consider while in their “right” minds. 

And this is why the Church offers the Rite of Christian Burial to those who die by suicide. Because they need the prayers. And their families need the comfort. And because the Church, too, believes in that the God who embodies perfect justice also embodies perfect mercy. 

And we live in great hope that they are with Him.