Updated: Jan 31
We have entered Lent. That means we will spend forty days preparing for the Resurrection of Christ, as recognized on Easter Sunday.
According to the Wikipedia article on “Lent” – “The traditional purpose of Lent is the preparation of the believer through prayer, penance, repentance, almsgiving, and self-denial.”
Today we read from the Book of Matthew, which tells of the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness. That period took place before Jesus began his ministry, and not thirty-three days before he was arrested, tried, crucified, buried, and resurrected during the seven days we recognize as Holy Week.
In a symbolic way, as Christians, we each began our own period of testing, just as Matthew wrote how Jesus was, “led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.”
We choose to quit serving some devil, as something that controls us. We decide we will stop smoking, or stop cussing, or stop texting while driving … whatever we recognize as something we do way too much, as a vice influenced by the devil to do.
How many times have we turned a Lenten commitment into a repeated scene from the comedy “Airplane,” where Lloyd Bridges’ character, Steven McCroskey said:
“Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit drinking.”
Then later, “Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit smoking.”
Still later, “Looks like I picked the wrong week to stop using amphetamines.”
And finally, ““Looks like I picked the wrong week to stop sniffing glue.”
We laugh at that progression because we all know, too well, “the best laid plans of mice and men oft go astray.” There is also an adage about a road paved with good intentions. Watch out for the potholes!
Lent is more than best laid plans and good intentions. While that is one part of the equation, we need to have a firm grasp on what the plan and intent of Lent is.
Just as the season of the Epiphany was not to marvel at Jesus’ miracle birth, but to let Jesus be born in our hearts. We needed to see why we each must seek our own Epiphany within us. Likewise, the season of Lent is not to marvel at Jesus spending forty days of conditioning, before beginning a test of endurance.
Lent is about our own conditioning, so that each one of us can pass the same tests and temptations. Not just for forty days and nights, but for the rest of our individual lives. We need conditioning so that we recognize every flaw in our nature, those which repeatedly have us fail God and deny Christ; so we can stop playing a role that has Jesus arrested, tried, and executed, over and over again. We have to find reason for the old self to die, so each of us can be individually reborn as Jesus.
Because Jesus passed his test, he showed us how we can each pass our test and reject temptation.
Today’s readings show us how temptations are always surrounding us. They come in all sizes, shapes, colors, and attachments. They come as crafty serpents; and they come as shiny new gadgets and toys, with lots of bells and whistles.
As real as the temptations may seem to us, they are nothing but illusions. Jesus did not fall for Satan’s tricks of illusion. Like Jesus, we need to see how this material world is only a figment of our imagination, like living a dream.
Dreams last but seconds, although sometimes they seem like hours pass. Our lives, if they run a full course of mortal existence, last 70, 80, 90, 100, 110 years of time. But, the timeline of eternity makes even 200 years nothing but a moment … like a dream.
The spiritual world is the true reality, and the spiritual world is not accessed by our intellectual acumen, by our knowledge of material things, or by our smarts.
In the Genesis reading today we are reminded of the temptation that caused an immortal Adam and Eve to be cast out of Heaven, forced to experience the physical universe, and thus death. God told Adam that he would face a mortal life of toil and sweat, while Eve would be made to face the labors of childbirth. The serpent would have to crawl in the dust forevermore, losing its ability to stand up and get in the ear of a man or woman. All those punishments were due to breaking the law of God, for eating the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil.
Adam and Eve fell from grace because their brains grew ten time greater than their hearts, meaning they were too weighed down to float for eternity in the spiritual realm. Sin grows brains, and vice versa.
I call that “Big Brain Syndrome” and as adults we all suffer from that disease. That disease is what keeps us from a return to be with God.
The tests of Jesus in the wilderness were mind games played by the devil. He hacked into Jesus’ brain, at a time when Jesus had already spent forty days of prayer, penance, and fasting. Matthew said Jesus was “famished,” meaning he was, “extremely hungry” or “starving.”
How often do we say, “I’m famished” just because we have gone five or six hours since our last meal?
In another Genesis story of deception, where Jacob stole his brother’s birthright, he waited until Esau was “at the point of death” (Genesis 25:32) from hunger, so he was eagerly willing to trade the rights of the firstborn son for a hearty stew. Esau was “famished” (Genesis 25:29).
Jesus was well beyond that point of physical weakness, after fasting for forty days and forty nights. That was when the devil entered Jesus’ mind and took him on a fantasy trip.
The devil showed Jesus stones and said they could become loaves of bread. He took Jesus mentally to the pinnacle of the temple and said, “If you jump the angels have been ordered to catch you and keep you from harm.” Satan then took Jesus’ mind’s eye to “a very high mountain,” and to “all the kingdoms of the world,” to show him the “splendor” of the earthly realm.
Unlike Eve, Jesus was not tricked into breaking any laws. Unlike Esau, he did not cave to physical desires and longings.
The devil kept quoting holy writings; but Jesus told the devil, “Away with you, Satan!”
And, “then the devil left him.”
The images of what could be then vanished. Any thoughts of a dream being real disappeared. The weakness of a brain-led physical body was strengthened by a heart-felt spiritual being.
The point of an individual Epiphany is to find the birth of Jesus in our hearts. We must have that dawning so that we can begin to realize we are not weaklings that must run and hide from an evil world, hiding under the wing of Christ, crying to him to protect us, to save us from our complete lack of strength to fend off the temptations of the world, which cause us to sin.
We must feel Jesus in our hearts, so that Christ speaks to our brains, saying, “Get thee behind me, Satan!”
We have to stop being afraid and act automatically.
One of my all-time favorite movies is Monty Python and the Holy Grail. In particular I love the point of the movie when Arthur and his knights come to the “bridge of death,” which spans the great abyss. They meet the bridge keeper, who says:
“Stop! Who would cross the Bridge of Death must answer me these questions three, ere the other side he see.”
The first knight, Sir Lancelot, is asked three questions, all of which are very simple, and the right answers are given to all. The bridge keeper says, “Right. Off you go,” and Sir Lancelot crosses to the other side.
The second knight, Sir Robin, is asked the same first two questions, which he answers correctly, but then he is asked a geography question, which he does not know. Off he flies into the great abyss. No answer is the wrong answer.
The third knight, Sir Galahad, then tries to cross. The bridge keeper asks him the exact same three questions as he asked Sir Lancelot, to which Sir Galahad gives the same exact answers … but he then realizes his last answer was not correct for him. What was right for Sir Lancelot was not right for Sir Galahad, so Sir Galahad goes flying off into the great abyss.
The point is this: two knights flew into the great abyss because they tried to use intellect as a way to get across. However, they were not as smart as they thought they were. The bridge keeper was testing their heart.
Sir Lancelot answered all the questions right because he spoke from his heart, not his mind.
Later, King Arthur would ask the bridge keeper a clarification question that sent the bridge keeper into the great abyss, because he could not answer.
King Arthur spoke from the heart, with his intellect heightened from that source, leading him not to answer, but to question.
As funny as that movie is, it seriously points out how we have to suspend our brains in order to enjoy the ride.
From the beginning of that movie to the end the knights never mount a horse. They clap coconut shells together to imitate the sound of a horse trotting on cobblestone. Meanwhile, the knights walk while prancing, mimicking riding a horse. You have to stop letting your brain tell you, “They are not riding horses,” and by the time the movie is over you have completely lost that level of intelligence.
In the reading from Matthew, we hear Jesus say, “One does not live by bread alone.” In a sense, “bread” is like our brain. Sure, we use our brains, just as we have to eat food to stay alive. However, when Jesus said that one lives “by every word that comes from the mouth of God,” he is saying we are fed spiritually through our hearts, which then speak to our minds, telling us much more than can ever be written.
Jesus told Satan, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” In the same way, it is not up to us to determine what is best for God to do to make our lives better served, so that we can better serve God in return. We are not to devise mental exercises that test if God is taking care of our needs.
I learned a lesson long ago that is summed up by saying, “The longer you hold onto a prayer, the longer it takes God to receive it and respond.” In other words, stop thinking about something you want and just do something without worrying over it.
Finally, Jesus told Satan, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” That followed Satan’s suggestion that Jesus sell his soul for fancy rings, crowns, and lands.
The same direction goes for each of us, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”
Think about this for a moment … Satan was serving the Lord his God, in the same way that God made the serpent “more crafty than any other wild animal.” God led Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil, so the devil was fulfilling a role for God. We too must serve the Lord as our God.
Satan, like all the angels, is instructed to serve God; and as servants of God, God has instructed the angels to be guides and assistants to mankind. Satan serves God by testing the faith of the faithful in humanity; but Satan refuses to serve mankind, so he has been condemned to the realm of sin … the earth. The same fate awaits all who turn away from God.
Satan will not let up testing our faith. That is why we need conditioning. We need resistance training through repetitions. We have to know to say, “Get away from me, influence of sin!” Then we have to say it, over and over.
We have to fight to open our eyes and stop dreaming, to stop seeing visions of sugar plums dancing in our heads and snap back to realizing what our goal is … to be one with God in Heaven.
That is what Lent is. It is forty-days of Basic Training for Temptation resistance.
Then, when Holy Week arrives we will be prepared to make a full sacrifice of faith, so Christ may resurrect in us, as a beacon of light for others to see.