If you are the Son of God
1st Sunday of Lent Cycle C

Doug McManaman
Reproduced with Permission

The words uttered by Satan in the desert, at the beginning of Christ’s ministry, have the same tonal resonance as the words uttered by the onlookers who mocked Jesus at his crucifixion: “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself”. The reason is that those very words were inspired by the Prince of Darkness.

I remember early on in my teaching career the day I took a class of young students to Mass during Lent. When I arrived back to the classroom, one young girl sitting directly in front of me said, in disgust: “What a wimp of a God you have, a God who died on a cross”.

Needless to say, I was astounded. Not only did she miss the message of the cross, she’d decided that there was nothing more to it than a sign of failure. If Christ did come down from the cross, however, it would mean that there are limits to what he chooses to suffer for love of us. But he did not come down from the cross, and this means that there are no limits to what he chooses to suffer for love of you and me.

“If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself”. But he did not come to save himself. He came to save the very people who were mocking him, the people whose words at that very moment reveal the heart of darkness.

Christ came to enter into human suffering, to fill it with his light, to make it holy; for he loves us, and every human life will be a life of suffering, some far more than others. The Son of God joins a human nature and enters into human suffering in order to keep us company in our suffering, and there are certain people in this world, special friends of his, whom he invites to keep him company in his suffering. In Gesthemane, these were Peter, James and John. In my life, they are the people I have been called to minister to as a Deacon, those who suffer from mental illness of various sorts. I am not one of these special friends; I am not worthy to be, but one called to serve and minister to those who are, namely the unknown, the forgotten and neglected, those who totally don’t matter to the world, who, from the world’s standpoint, are completely useless. These are the people who struggle every moment with paranoia, depression, schizophrenia, obsessive compulsive neurosis, etc. If the Son of God had never joined a human nature and entered into human suffering, these people would have the terrible and unbearable burden of having to suffer alone. But he is there, the Son of God who is Light from Light, true God from true God, crowned with thorns, in the very heart of their suffering.

Christ’s suffering began the very moment he entered this world, but this gospel focuses on the beginning of his public ministry. Satan attempts to lure Jesus away from suffering. In this gospel, there are three distinct temptations that exactly correspond to the three wounds of Original Sin called concupiscence, which all of us have to contend with for the rest of our lives. Concupiscence in general is the tendency within us to sin and self-seeking, but there are three distinct kinds: concupiscence of the flesh, which is an inordinate desire for physical gratification; concupiscence of the eyes, which is inordinate ambition, or the inordinate love of security or power; and finally, there is the pride of life, which is inordinate self-estimation, or excessive love of one’s excellence.

Christ does not suffer from the wounds of Original Sin, but he is subject to a special diabolical temptation to these three ways of sin, which are in us always as propensities to sin.

First, Christ tasted hunger. He entered into the suffering of intense human hunger, joining it to his divine life, which is eternal. Because of that decision, no one who suffers the injustice of hunger suffers alone. That suffering, which many of us are indifferent to, now has the power to call forth the divine mercy upon the world; it has the power to bring the injustice of sinful man right into the light of the cross. It can now heal the world that is responsible for the injustice of that particular poverty. Christ willingly joined himself to that specific suffering, and all we have to do is accept his company and our suffering shares in his power to heal the world. To what extent has the innocent suffering of the impoverished succeeded in calling forth the divine mercy upon the sin of the wealthy nations of the north? Heaven only knows at this point; but what a revelation it will be to discover, in the end, that the victims of our greed have been our intercessors all along.

Satan tries to lure him away from that suffering: “If you are the Son of God, turn these stones into bread.” But Christ defeats him through the power of Scripture, the power of God’s word, which is precisely who Christ is, the Word of God.

And so, the devil changes his tactics and takes aim at another aspect of the human person: the lust for power or control. “I shall give to you all this power and glory; for it has been handed over to me, and I may give it to whomever I wish. All this will be yours, if you worship me.”

Here Christ is tempted to power, to glory. The human person suffers from an inordinate desire for power, for security, for a life free from the fear of suffering, that is, a life that is totally within one’s control.

But God chose to enter into the suffering of those who suffer the humiliation of having no power, the humiliation of being at the mercy of those among us who have a perverse need to control others.

God joins himself to those who are enslaved by the control of people who love their own security more than they love God. Above all, He joins himself to the suffering of those who are made to suffer from man's unforgiveness; because one way to maintain control over another, to keep another enslaved, is to refuse to forgive. When we forgive a person who has hurt us in some way, we free that person, that is, we relinquish all rights to the debt that he owes us as a result of his sin against us. In the past, a slave owner would, after releasing a slave, lose the knowledge of his whereabouts. Forgiveness is like that. To forgive is to release another from our control, and if we have truly forgiven, we eventually lose knowledge of what he had done to us. If we refuse to forgive, however, we place ourselves on the side of Satan by choosing power instead of Christ.

But Christ defeats Satan’s attempt to lure him in this direction once again through the power of God’s word: “You shall worship the Lord, your God, and him alone shall you serve.”

Then the Devil leads him to Jerusalem and makes him stand on the parapet of the Temple of Jerusalem. Interestingly enough, Christ allows himself to be handled, compelled. And then he attempts to deceive Christ by quoting Scripture himself: “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written: He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you, and: With their hands they will support you, lest you dash your foot against a stone.”

If Jesus gave in to the Devil’s suggestion, that prodigy would have taken place not in the loneliness of the desert, but in full view of a multitude. Many would see that Jesus is subject to special or divine protection, that he has divine importance.

But he came to enter into the sufferings of those who have no importance in the eyes of others.

Christ came to reveal the glory of God’s absolute love through the humiliation of the cross. This cross reveals the incomprehensible magnitude of His absolute love. What kind of God do we have? One who loves us beyond our ability to understand, he loves us so much that He is willing to enter into the worst of human suffering, in order to be intimately present to all who suffer, and through that suffering take them to Himself. Consider the size and temperature of the sun. The fire of God’s love is infinitely larger. It is a burning furnace without limits, and that’s what the cross reveals. That’s what Christ’s entire life reveals.

That’s the difference between the great religions of the world and Christianity. The ancient religions of the world contain so much that is true, so much wisdom, but at the heart of them all is an attempt to rise above suffering, to find a way to conquer it. But God has chosen to enter into human suffering, because God is love, and He chooses to draw close to us, who suffer. That’s what is so unique about God’s self-revelation in the Person of Christ.

Perhaps there are some here who do not suffer much, who have a very easy life. If that is the case, I can say two things. First, you are to be commended, because most people who have a life with little suffering see no need for God, and so they do not think to worship him. But if you are here, you have not fallen into that trap. The second thing I can say is that you will suffer eventually. But in the meantime, you could begin, if you have not already, to see those who do suffer in a different light. Have a different point of view towards them. You could choose to use your blessings to serve them in some way, since we know that Christ dwells in those who suffer. To serve them is to serve Christ. St. Leo the Great wrote: “The person who shows love and compassion to those in any kind of affliction is blessed, not only with the virtue of good will but also with the gift of peace.”

Perhaps there are some here who suffer terribly, who suffer from severe depression or some other mental illness. I would urge you to see yourself in a different light, to see yourself as a special friend of God whom He has chosen to keep Him company in His suffering that He endured on Holy Thursday night, in Gethsemane when he suffered great mental anguish. Many of my patients feel a great deal of shame that they have a mental illness. And yet they have the honour of being called by Christ to help keep the torrent of the divine mercy pouring out upon the world.

But most of us are somewhere in between these two poles. We have to contend with some degree of suffering in our lives. We just need remember not to allow ourselves to be driven to order our lives so as to evade all suffering. We need not fear it, but to accept whatever suffering God chooses to allow to come our way. To embrace that suffering is to radiate Christ to those around us.