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On the battleground

First slide

On the first Sunday in Lent, we always hear the account of Christ’s temptation in the wilderness. The church wants us to know the 40 days of Lent which have just begun are a participation in Christ’s 40 days in the desert. His 40 days are our 40 days, and what he accomplished then he seeks to accomplish in us now.

While Matthew and Luke give us more detail about the specific temptations themselves, Mark’s account is stunningly brief. It is only two verses long, in fact: "The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered to him." Despite its brevity, the point is still the same. Christ was driven into the desert to accomplish something: to be tempted by Satan. Immediately after his baptism in the Jordan, the Holy Spirit drives him into a hostile environment: "He was with the wild beasts". Jesus is brought straight to the front lines to do battle with Satan. In one sense, the battleground is the desert. This is where Our Lord encounters the devil. In another sense, the battleground is our humanity itself. We live on this battleground every day.

When we are tempted, we may feel like we already are morally compromised, or we may think that giving in to the temptation is inevitable. It may help to clarify the nature of temptation. St. Gregory the Great distinguishes three potential stages of it: suggestion, delight, consent. Suggestion is when an idea of doing something sinful is simply presented to us. So far, there’s no sin there. The next possible stage is that of delight. This is when we engage with the idea presented to us and find pleasure in considering it. We sit down with it and have a conversation. We may not yet have given in fully, but we have given the temptation a foothold in our mind, and sin has already begun in us. Finally, consent is when we give in and fully choose the sin.

When Jesus is tempted, the devil encounters a man in whom he can gain absolutely no foothold. The devil suggests sin but makes no progress in getting Jesus of Nazareth to delight in it or to consent to it. St. Gregory explains, "(Jesus) may have been tempted by suggestion, but delight in sin did not have a hold on his mind. All this diabolical temptation was for him external, without anything inside."

For us, the experience of being tempted can be a discouragement and wear us down. But it may be a consolation to know that Jesus too was tempted, and he was tempted without sinning. As long as we stop at the stage of suggestion and don’t let ourselves slide into delight and consent, there is no sin. This is easier said than done, of course. We still do find sin appealing. We can easily be deceived and enticed into choosing it. We live on this battleground every day.

It is a danger and a huge mistake if we think that we are on this battleground alone: "It’s just me and the devil, and the devil is stronger." We should never forget that there is someone else who has come to conquer the devil, and he seeks to come to us again and again to offer us his holiness. St. Ambrose asks, "When does God the Word most often knock at your door?" The answer: "He visits in love those in trouble and temptation, to save them from being overwhelmed by their trials … That is the time when you must keep watch so that when the bridegroom comes he may not find himself shut out, and take his departure." In the moment of temptation, our minds might be so focused on the appeal of the sin before us that we fail to hear the knocking of Christ at our door. He is with us. He was driven to this battleground by love, to be with us in our temptation ,and he has conquered it. Let us not forget that he is there, nor fail to open to his knocking.

Fr. Oetjen is parochial vicar of St. James Church in Falls Church. 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021