Since the Lord Jesus came to lead us in the fight against sin and death, against the devil panoplied in power and pride, it was fitting that He be tempted for our sake and on our behalf.
Immediately before beginning His public ministry He was – for our sake -- tempted in the desert after John’s baptism and there His inviolable sinlessness as the incarnate Son of God was made manifest to His adversary. In His Passion and Death on Calvary He would once again be tempted – this time on our behalf -- as the totally selfless Son of Man and Lamb of God; that, in His ultimate triumph over the devil and death, He might win for us grace to work with Him and by His Spirit, for our salvation and the glory of the Father Who originally created us and eternally loves us as His adopted children in Jesus, His most beloved Son.
Now, if we look carefully at Our Blessed Lord’s temptations in the desert in today’s Gospel reading, we can recognize the broad outlines of temptation faced by humankind everywhere; for the devil tempts men, women, yes, and even children, first of all, through their earthly appetites, just as he did with Jesus when he said:
If You are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.
They are very many who succumb to this first sort of temptation as they pander to their appetites for food, alcohol, sex, and pleasures and satisfactions of all sorts. Yet, there are many who will overcome, or at least resist for a time, this “common” sort of weakness, until the next big hurdle -- the temptations offered to personal pride by the indulgence of self-will and the exercise of power and authority -- bring them crashing to the ground:
The devil, taking Him up on a high mountain, showed Him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time. And the devil said to Him: All this authority I will give You, and their glory, if You will worship before me.
Some few, however, might not readily succumb to even such temptations; and, being neither overwhelmed by sensual pleasures, nor proudly eager to exercise power or authority over others, they may not even strive to be seen as most talented, acknowledged as most capable, admired as most popular.
Nevertheless, because all human beings are, in one way or another, sinful, these remaining few will ultimately succumb to the last temptation experienced by Jesus in the desert:
(The devil) brought Him to Jerusalem, set Him on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to Him, "If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down from here.
There we have the temptation most closely corresponding with the devil’s own character, the temptation to spiritual pride, that is, to self-proclaiming holiness.
And so we have these three: pleasure, in its myriad forms, including even idleness; and pride, both worldly and spiritual; these are the sins of humankind throughout the ages.
But what about those human weaknesses of despondency and fear which inhibit so many by persuading them to hide, or even shut themselves away, so that nothing can either be expected from them or asked of them?
In one sense this last failing is the worst of all; for, what can be done with one who refuses to move? Someone going in the wrong direction can be redirected; anyone who is faltering on the way can be encouraged and strengthened; and those who are seeking -- but confess themselves to be puzzled and uncertain -- can be enlightened; but what can be done for someone who has no desire to be, or to do, anything other than to remain undisturbed, sit cosy, and hold tight?
The sins of pleasure are a perverted acknowledgement of the divine truth that creation is truly beautiful and we are not self-sufficient; for, without repeated injections of contrived and distorted satisfactions of whatever sort, such sinners find themselves deeply unhappy and unfulfilled. Likewise, the sins of pride are a testimony to our God-given human potential for advancement and improvement of all sorts: and indeed, at times, sinners of that sort show great human ingenuity and skill, expend enormous energy and make great endeavours, in order to satisfy that most foolish and insatiable of all passions: self-aggrandizement. On the other hand, however, the despondency and fear which can paralyze a human being and prevent him or her doing anything with their life, bears no witness -- either negative or positive -- to our human dignity or our divine calling; indeed, it tends to rob us of our authentic human character, since it is of the essence of human kind that, being made in the image and likeness of God, they are destined for fulfilment and, indeed, called to seek and to find it eternally with Him.
And so, whilst the sins of pleasure staining our modern society are a clear sign that many are painfully aware of their own emptiness and need for fulfilment; and whilst the proud, likewise, give positive, albeit twisted and deeply vitiated, testimony to the calling and gifts with which mankind has been endowed; the inertia of the despondent and the fearful, on the other hand -- entertaining no hope for fulfilment and passively contenting themselves with the little they have – are witnesses to nothing other than the weak and the piteous state of our fallen nature.
Our readings today have shown us something of humanity’s sins and failings, and perhaps that has already helped to set us on the way to health by spurring us to hate our lustfulness and pride and to despise our despondency and fear. Can they help us further in our needs? Do they hold yet further guidance and grace for us?
Let us think back to our first reading and, learning from it, begin to appreciate and give expression to that most beautiful and praiseworthy virtue, gratitude, which springs up so naturally in the human heart, unless that heart has been rendered insensitive by the cares and concerns of deep-rooted selfishness.
Gratitude is a most beautiful virtue: its “innocence” gladdens both the recipient and the giver, for true gratitude is not, and cannot be, concocted; neither is it a virtue only for those who are specially talented, since it wells up freely and spontaneously from the depths of our common humanity.
The Lord brought us out of Egypt with strong hand and outstretched arm, with terrifying power, with signs and wonders; and bringing us into this country, He gave us this land flowing with milk and honey. Therefore I have now brought you the first-fruits of the land which you, Lord, have given me.
One of the easiest and surest ways to find joy in the Lord, then, is to be grateful for all the blessings of life, be they big or small. Above all, try to offer your Mass, and your communion with Jesus at Mass, with gratitude to God in your heart.
Next, we can learn something from St. Paul’s teaching in the second reading, for so often people make relations with God difficult for themselves. They imagine God is demanding this and that from them when really He is not demanding anything but simply seeking to lead them, gradually, further along the way from wherever they may presently find themselves, to the fullness of happiness and eternal life.
Now, you in Church today have come here believing – mind and heart – in Jesus; and hopefully you have learned to appreciate and want to express gratitude for the salvation He opens up before you. Learn then, from St. Paul, and undertake to confess with your mouth that gratitude you acknowledge as due from you:
For, one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved.
People of God, this is a teaching you can and should begin to put into action here at Mass! Don’t just stand or sit with your mouth closed and your heart dull; if you do not confess God here you will never confess Him outside before others who do not believe. If you put your heart into the Creed, the hymns, the responses at Mass, if you confess with your mouth in that way, you will show yourselves as worthy to be gradually led to speak up, when it is necessary so to do, before those who do not believe, or even mock. Don’t imagine for yourself seemingly impossible acts of public witness being demanded of you on leaving Church this day; try to praise God wholeheartedly here and now, and He may gradually lead you -- if you are worthy -- to confess with your mouth before others when the Spirit wants such witness of you. He will never demand what you cannot give: He will – if you are willing and worthy -- lead and encourage you first, and then, only ask you when you are able. Indeed, you will probably not even be aware that you are being asked, it will seem so natural for you to respond to the Spirit’s call when you have become accustomed to confessing gratitude with your mouth here at Mass.
Finally, we should have boundless confidence in God. St. Paul reminded us:
Scripture says, "No one who believes in Him will be put to shame."
The Israelites, miserable and weak slaves though they were, were led out of Egypt, despite the power of Pharaoh’s army, because they trusted in the Lord who had spoken to Moses; they endured through the desert -- the waterless, stony, desert -- because they trusted in the Lord was speaking to them through Moses. Moses was a man who, though born a Hebrew, had been brought up as an Egyptian. The Lord had called and inspired him to lead Israel into freedom; and, because Moses had been sent by God and knew the Egyptians, under his leadership the Hebrew slaves learned confidence to trust their God and face up to the Egyptians.
Now, surely we can trust Jesus! He is, indeed, the Son of God and, since He is also most truly one of us, His Spirit knows how to guides us heavenwards along ways that -- in Him and with Him -- are no longer impossible for us. That is why He is always wanting and seeking to lead us on and up to ever better, higher, and greater things; and that is also why the idleness that aspires only to sit cosy and hold tight is so unacceptable to Him. For, despite all our fears, despite our natural weakness, God has made us for Himself and in Jesus He has overcome for us all the trials and temptations that can come our way. Take confidence, therefore, and trust in the Lord and the Spirit He has bestowed on us: sing psalms and offer prayers of gratitude and thanksgiving in your life, and you will find them developing quickly into a joyful antiphon of witness and praise springing spontaneously to your lips as you find yourself being led along ways that delight and fulfil you beyond all your dreams. Then you will indeed thank God for your Catholic Faith which has helped you to believe in Jesus, our Lord and Saviour; to trust in His Spirit, our Advocate and Comforter; and to look forward in hope to the vision and the presence of Him Who is our God and, indeed, our most loving Father.