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