364. Here’s what we’re going to miss again: Christ’s Temptations

from Dionysiou Monastery, Mount Athos, 16th century (courtesty of Saint Isaac’s Skete, skete.com)

Today Friday January 6 is the Epiphany, when we celebrate Christ’s Baptism. In this Sunday’s Gospel reading, Christ begins His public ministry.

Between those events something extremely significant happened, which most Orthodox never hear about. In fact I could find very few Orthodox icons about it.

Christ’s Temptations in the Desert

Last summer I wrote that I dearly wish we Orthodox would get to hear the story of the Wedding in Cana of Galilee on a Sunday – such a sweet story, which tells us so much about our Lord Jesus and His Mother.

I wish even more that the story of Christ’s Temptations would be a Sunday Gospel reading. * This is foundational for our understanding of our Lord Jesus Christ and also of our own Christian life.

  • It never will be, of course. Our Orthodox lectionary is older than the hills and just as unchangeable. The Gospel of the Temptations is scheduled for the Wednesday after the Epiphany, when few except monastics will hear it. Brothers and sisters, please follow the Church’s lectionary on your own. Otherwise you will miss so much. Go to https://www.goarch.org/chapel/   or https://www.antiochian.org/liturgicday 

Let’s begin by looking briefly at:

The Epiphany

Or the Theophany as it is often called.

Five years ago I wrote a sympathetic article about this great Feast. (I’ll tack it onto the end of today’s Post, so I won’t say much about it here.)

Our holy old Orthodox Church is known for moving very slowly, if at all. One of the few exceptions comes at this time of year. In the Orthodox Church the Wise Men arrive on Christmas morning. Among Western Christians they don’t arrive till the Epiphany. On our Epiphany Jesus is baptized, and we’ve left Western Christians thirty years behind us!   

I hope that wasn’t irreverent, but we so seldom get there ahead of anybody, and it’s fun to enjoy it.

Now, to the serious subject at hand.

Christ’s Temptations

In what follows, the lines in italics are the account from Saint Luke (4:1-15).

At that time Jesus returned from the Jordan, and was led by the Spirit for forty days in the wilderness, tempted by the devil. And He ate nothing in those days; and when they were ended, He was hungry.  

I should think so!

These are usually referred to as Christ’s three temptations. I count four temptations:

The First Temptation

Monreale Cathedral, Palermo, Sicil

The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God…”

Some say Satan was trying to find out for himself. I don’t think so. Later, his demons will cry “I know Who you are: the Son of the Most High God”. I think Satan was trying to tempt Jesus to doubt Himself.

Jesus Christ was fully human. “…in all things He had to be made like His brethren.”  Hebrews 2:17  

How did He come to know Who He was – and is? Surely we don’t believe He knew it when He was only a few cells in the womb of His Mother. Unborn human babies mentallly comprehend nothing.

All human beings go through a slow process of discovering who we are, what is our place in the world. Jesus of Nazareth must have gone through that same process. There is no way we can enter into the mind of this unique Person Who was both God and Man. But can we dare to try to imagine? Elaborating on the passage from Fae Melania in last week’s Post, I can imagine the Boy Jesus seeing deeply into the reality of things and of persons around Him, and also His immediate access to God, and then realizing that others didn’t share those capacities, and also His strange memories of things beyond this world… … and wondering why… …and slowly, ever so slowly beginning to realize… … till at the right time He asked His Mother, and… …

I added many dots there because we cannot know. But something more or less like this must have taken place, as “Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.”  Luke 2:52 

Duccio di Buoninsegna (1255-1319)

By age twelve He knew. In the temple He told His parents: “Did you not know I must be about My Father’s business?” Surely that is why His Mother kept this particular story “in her heart”. Luke 2:51

At that age Jewish boys were considered adults, so why did He wait another eighteen years before He began His ministry? My guess is that it took that long for Him to be absolutely sure, beyond any doubt, to the depths of His being, that He was the only-begotten Son of God Incarnate – lest He be wrong and blaspheme God, not to mention make a fool of Himself.

So when He was thirty He dared to make His first public “appearance”. He went to John for Baptism, and  from Heaven the voice of His Father came saying, “You are My beloved Son; in You I am well pleased.”  Luke 3:22  – confirming, not only to the world, but also to Jesus Himself, that He was right.

All of the above is only how I read it.

Duccio di Buoninsegna (1255-1319)

But before Jesus began His public ministry, something else needed to happen: His Father directed the Holy Spirit lead Him into the desert to be tempted, tested, lest His Son set the course of His brief ministry in the wrong directions.

Could this have happened? Was the Son of God really tempted to go wrong? to commit sin? in the New Testament sense of being “off the mark”, the bullseye being God’s will.

The answer apparently is Yes. Hebrews says “…we do not have a High Priest who cannot be touched with the feelings of our infirmities, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin.” Hebrews 4:15

God only knows (literally) what God could be tempted to. His temptations must have been beyond our imagining. But Jesus had free will like every other human being. If He had sinned, I can imagine the whole moral foundation of the world collapsing. Perhaps I’m seeing it wrong, but it seems to me that by directing His beloved Son to become a Man and be tempted, God the Father took an almost unthinkable risk. And all for our sake… because “He is good and loves mankind”.

On an almost infinitely lower level, this is our first temptation as well. First, to doubt who we are, our God-given place in the world. (One relevant example: Are you male or are you female?) The temptation especially for Christians is this: “Are you really a child of God?” “Yes I am. I have been baptized into the Body of Christ. God is my Father.” “But… does God really care? Look. You know you want to do that thing you want to do: all you have to do is disbelieve for just a little while… ” God is also taking a pretty big risk by allowing me, His beloved son by adoption, to be tempted to disbelieve, or act as if I don’t believe.

Jesus didn’t even bother to respond to Satan’s first temptation. Now fully confident of His identity, He just let the devil proceed.

These last three temptations are symbolic. Well, perhaps the first one wasn’t entirely symbolic to this Man who was fasting for forty days!

The Second Temptation: 

Russian, 1662

If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” And Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone.'”

Note how the devil continues to try to make Him doubt Himself. 

The greater temptation: Should He “go for the bread”?  for material things? “It’s the economy, stupid”, that’s what it’s all about. Bread for the world, for all the hungry people of the world. Christ could have fed them all. He could have spent all His time meeting peoples’ material needs – and He did feed the needy and commanded us to care for the poor.  But His answer was a quote from Deuteronomy: “Man shall not live by bread alone.” He would concentrate on an even deeper need, mankind’s spiritual hunger: our thirst for truth, for goodness, for love, our thirst for God.

That likewise is our second great temptation: to go for the “stuff”, to be greedy, to forget what truly makes us human, brings us joy, brings us love, and, as Saint Augustine wrote, “My heart was restless till it found rest in You.” Jesus didn’t say we don’t need “bread”. God created us with physical needs. But there is so much more.

Russian, Sixteenth Century

The Third Temptation

And the devil took Him up, and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, and said to Him, “To you I will give all this authority and their glory; for it has been delivered to me, and I will give it to whom I will. If you, then, will worship me, it shall all be yours.” And Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only shall you serve.’

Follow Satan and become ruler over the nations of the world. There was a double trap here: Does Satan rule over the world? Jesus would later call him “the prince of this world”, not “the king of this world”. The devil promises many things he cannot deliver. No matter, Christ already was Pantocrator, Ruler of All. 

The second trap: He could use His power to rule as the devil does: by force, by control. Satan has no scruples: He does not respect our free will. What he wants is control over people, to make us slaves and destroy the image of God within us. Again Christ quoted Scripture: “You shall worship God alone” – Who rules not by force but by love.

The warning for us is likewise twofold:

1) Do not be tempted to worship anything but “God alone”. God must come first. Without God it all falls apart. Jesus taught: “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in Me, he is cast out as a branch and is withered; and they gather them and throw them into the fire, and they are burned.” John 15:5-6  A family or a society that turns away from God sooner or later will wither. One year, after reading that passage on the first Friday in Lent I cut off a few green branches off a vine we had in church. They stayed green almost till Holy Week – and then I don’t have to tell you what happened. They dried up. The devil got them.

2) Do not fall for the temptation of trying to control people. Of course parents should control and train their children, but we all know that a family that functions only by control will fall apart. No, the devil will destroy it. Of course police should enforce the law, but a society that functions only by law will soon tear itself apart. No, the devil will do it.

The Fourth Temptation

Spanish fresco, mid-Twelfth Century

Again he took Him to Jerusalem, and set Him on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to Him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here; for it is written, ‘He will give his angels charge of you, to guard you, ‘ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.'” And Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘You shall not tempt the Lord your God.'” And when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from him until an opportune time.

Now the devil quoted the Bible – Psalm 91. Two can play at this game, he says.  (When you hear Holy Scripture being quoted, don’t just assume it’s being quoted for good purposes.)

Here’s how I read this: The devil tempted the Lord to make a circus side show of His ministry. Gather a crowd to watch you jump off the temple wall. Promote Yourself. Publicity is what you need. Popularity. Call in the media. Build yourself a big mega-church. Get yourself on TV. “Here I am! The only begotten Son of God! Look at Me! I’m a Winner!”

Not quite. The Son of God was born in a cave. grew up as a refugee and then in an obscure corner of the Empire. It would be centuries before the high and mighty of the Empire would hear of Him. How often during His ministry did Christ warn people to tell no one about Him or what He had done for them. And in the end (or what seemed to be the end): The only-begotten Son of God abandoned by nearly all His friends, executed as a criminal, was dead at age 33. We know there was more to the story, but even that was no media event.

Our temptation is the same. It can be resisted: I once knew a very rich couple whose favorite occupation was to share their bounty quietly, without calling attention to themselves. I know, because that was how they behaved in my parish. When our little mission church was about to go bankrupt, they quietly paid off the mortgage and refused to let me tell people who had done it.

One time she told me how a home for clergy widows needed a station wagon, so she and a friend went out together and bought a station wagon and parked it in front of the home. She went in, dropped the keys at the front desk, ran out and they drove away fast in her friend’s car, like criminals who had robbed a bank. “It was so much fun!” she told me.

And much more. It must have been terribly hard for this dear, holy couple to resist the devil’s temptation to make a show of themselves. But like Jesus, they resisted.

Now when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from Him until an opportune time.

courtesy of pravmir.com

Satan had lost – for now. But, as he always does with us when we resist… you know he’ll be back when you least expect Him.

Whether Jesus underwent temptation during His ministry we are not told. But we know how He was tempted at the end.

And we know how He resisted again, and won the battle again. “Not My will but Yours be done”.

But that’s three years in the future. For now Christ’s Temptations were over. He emerged victorious.

He returned in the power of the Spirit into Galilee, and a report concerning Him went out through all the surrounding country. And He taught in their synagogues, being

It was safe to do that now, because His mind and heart were fixed, and His course was set.

This leaves you and me still in the midst of temptations.

Is the course of your life fixed? Is mine? Are we firm in our faith as children of God? Are we going for more than material things? for the greatest and most important things?  Am I doing it nor for me? but for God and for others.

If we can resist Satan’s temptations now, if we can tell him “go to hell” now, it will be much easier to resist when he comes at us again at a more opportune time. A more opportune time time for him, that is.

Like our Lord Jesus, we have free will. The choice is ours. Yours. Mine.

Next Week: Wisdom from Saint Gregory of Nazianzus

Week after Next: Zacchaeus Sunday – as we start moving towards Lent and Pascha. Already?

46. Poor Epiphany – and Poor Us




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