Why did Jesus have to go into the desert?

Aaron Lambert

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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COMING UP: From rare books to online resources, archdiocesan library has long history of service to students

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National Library Week, observed this year from April 4 to April 10, is the perfect occasion to highlight the essential role of libraries and library staff in strengthening our communities – and our very own Cardinal Stafford Library at the Archdiocese of Denver is no exception.  

Since 1932, the library has served as a religious, intellectual, and cultural resource for seminarians and students at St. John Vianney Seminary in Denver.

As the library of the seminary, we are always responsible for the four dimensions of the priestly formation of our seminarians. The library is charged with being responsible to all the divisions of the Seminary: the Lay Division (Catholic Biblical School and Catholic Catechetical School), the Permanent Deacon Formation Division, and the Priestly Formation Division, said Stephen Sweeney, Library Director. 

In addition to being one of the main resources to the seminary, the Cardinal Stafford Library serves the needs of other educational programs in the Archdiocese of Denver, including the St. Francis School for Deacons, the Biblical School, the Catechetical School and the Augustine Institute. While the library is currently closed to the public due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was previously open to anyone, giving people access to more than 150,000 books, audios, and videos. 

The Cardinal Stafford Library was named after Cardinal J. Francis Stafford, Apostolic Penitentiary at the Vatican and former Archbishop of Denver from 1986 to 1996. He was a dedicated advocate of the library and of Catholic education.

In 1932, the library was established by two seminarians, Maurice Helmann and Barry Wogan. While they were not the first seminarians to conceive the idea of establishing a library, they are considered the founders for undertaking its organization.  

Since its founding, the library has grown and compiled a fine collection of resources on Catholic theology, Church history, biblical studies, liturgy, canon law, religious art, philosophy, and literature. Special collections include over 500 rare books dating back to the early 16th century and many periodicals dating back to the 1800s. The oldest publication in the library is a book on excommunication published in 1510. The Cardinal Stafford Library is also home to various relics and holds bills personally written by some of those saints.  

Over the past few years, the library has undergone a process of beautification through various renovations that include improvements in lighting, flooring, and even furniture restoration. During these difficult times, libraries are doing their best to adapt to our changing world by expanding their digital resources to reach those who don’t have access to them from home. 

The Cardinal Stafford Library provides a community space; we subscribe to about 200 print journals and have access to literally thousands more through online resources available on campus computers, Sweeney added. “I have been the Library Director for almost 11 years. I absolutely love my work, especially participating in the intellectual formation of the faithful from all of the dioceses we serve”.  

For more information on the Cardinal Stafford Library, visit: sjvdenver.edu/library 

Featured photo by Andrew Wright