Wisdom from the Desert

This Sunday is Palm Sunday, which begins Holy Week and the Church’s focus on the final days of Jesus public ministry before His death and Resurrection. This article will, however, conclude the reflections on the Biblical precedents for the 40 days of Lent by focusing on the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, His time in the desert as He prepared to launch the kingdom of God on earth. As Matthew, Mark and Luke recount, after His baptism Jesus made a 40 day retreat in the desert to prepare for His ministry by self-sacrifice, prayer, and fighting the seducer of humanity.

The devil used this time to tempt Jesus in at least three ways. First, he told Him to avoid His sacrificial fasting by turning rock into bread. Second, he told Jesus to gain cheap publicity by showing off in the form casting Himself off the top of the Temple and, by miracle, floating in mid-air. Finally, he tempted Jesus to accomplish His goals through earthly power and a pact with the devil, rather than faithfulness to God.

As the great preacher and writer Archbishop Fulton Sheen points out in his 1958 classic Life of Christ, the devil was showing Jesus “three shortcuts from the Cross.” By resisting those temptations, Jesus began to reverse the Fall of Man and reestablish the order destroyed through original sin. St. Mark hints at this restoration when he describes the peace that exited in that desert between the angels, Jesus, and the animals, a peace that recalls the primordial harmony of Eden from long ago. See Mark 1:13. Jesus’ time in the desert gives us encouragement in at least three ways.

First, it helps us understand the need for time alone with God so that His wisdom, rather than our own desires or self-image, guides our lives. Second, the Gospels make clear that Jesus knows what it is like to be tempted. As the letter the Hebrews says, “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one was has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin.” Heb. 4:15. Third, the fact that Jesus began the restoration of humanity after this intense struggle exemplifies the fact that, when deep struggles are borne with faith, God is preparing for His greatest triumphs, as the death of Christ would lead to His resurrection.

If we are faithful to God, the winter of sacrifice ends with the springtime of grace.