The Divine Exchange

Douglas P. McManaman
First Sunday of Lent
Reproduced with Permission

These readings of the first Sunday of Lent are very hopeful. The gospel reading is really a foreshadowing of the victory of the cross. The parallel of the 40 days in the wilderness is of course the 40 years that Israel spent in the desert after the crossing of the Red Sea; and the crossing of the Red Sea symbolizes our baptism; crossing the Jordan and entering into the promise land is a symbol of the promise of eternal life. And so the 40 years in the desert in between these two events can only represent the difficult life of every follower of Christ.

In this life we will be subject to a host of temptations. Each one of us has our own personal battle, the battle against our own specific tendency to sin. But this is a battle that can now be won; and the reason is that Christ was victorious over Satan in the desert, and we too can be victorious over the lure of sin if we insert our lives into his life, if we live our lives in him, in his flesh and blood. And that is precisely what he asks of us: to give him our humanity. In return, he will give us his divinity. That's the divine exchange he offers us: "You give me your humanity, and I will give you my divinity. With my divinity, you will rise above sin, and ultimately, you will enter into the unimaginable joy of eternal life". But our part involves giving him our own humanity. And this gospel shows us just what is involved in that exchange.

There are three different kinds of temptation in this gospel: the temptation to live for the flesh; the temptation to live for the goods of this world, and the temptation to unbelief.

The first temptation is difficult to understand at first because after so long a fast, it would seem that Jesus has a right to eat. But the clue to interpreting this text is, I believe, found in Jesus reply to Satan: "Man does not live by bread alone". The gospel of Matthew extends this: "…but on every word that comes from the mouth of God." Man lives by the bread of life, which is the Word made flesh. Christ is our food. He is our life. Without him, we die.

The first temptation all of us are subject to is to make our own physical sustenance the first priority in our life. It is easy to rationalize that decision: we can't live without food; if we don't eat, we will die. And that is true, but man does not live by bread alone. We can live our lives very comfortably with plenty to eat until the day we die, and yet that life can be as miserable as death. There are many people around the world who have plenty to eat and plenty of money and who "do themselves in" every year. They can't bear to live in death, and without the grace of God, we are dead spiritually. Others may not go so far as to do themselves in, but they live desperate lives, desperately searching for ways to satisfy their restlessness, and so they make pleasure and ease the center around which their lives revolve.

If we are not alive in Christ, in his grace, if we have not experienced the forgiveness of our sins in him, our enjoyment of everything we possess will be a superficial enjoyment. Those who do not know Christ, who have not discovered him, who do not tasted His goodness, and who might very well be able to purchase a never ending stream of the pleasures of food and drink and might even afford yearly travel to faraway places that are new and exciting, all they will ever experience in life are temporary pleasures, but the joy of really knowing Christ is profound and other-worldly, and no earthly pleasure can hold a candle to it. Trappist Monk Thomas Merton once said "Never seek rest in pleasure, for you were not created for pleasure, you were created for joy; and if you do not know the difference between pleasure and joy, you have not yet begun to live". We hunger not too long after we've eaten, but the satisfaction of really knowing Christ is one that does not dissipate.

The next temptation is the temptation to compromise our moral conscience for the sake of personal security. This is a temptation that plagues everyone today, especially clergy and those in high office. One of the best books ever written, one very fitting for Lent, is called The Sadness of Christ , by St. Thomas More, who wrote it while imprisoned in the Tower of London. In that book he warns us against the tendency in us to seek our heaven on earth: "…if we get so weary of pain and grief that we perversely attempt to change this world, this place of labor and penance, into a joyful haven of rest, if we seek heaven on earth, we cut ourselves off forever from true happiness and will drown ourselves in penance when it is too late to do any good and in unbearable, unending tribulations as well". And the only reason he ended up in the Tower in the first place is because he refused to do just that, namely, seek heaven on earth. All he had to do to keep his estate in Chelsea and continue to feed his family, to save his life ultimately, was to do something that he knew would violate his own conscience: take an oath swearing allegiance of Henry, declare him head of the Church of England. It was that simple. He would have been immediately restored to his position as Chancellor, he would have been back at home on his large estate in Chelsea on the Thames river; he would enjoy the peace of mind knowing that his children were not homeless. But he refused to violate even slightly his own conscience, knowing as he did that Christ founded the Church on Peter, not on the king. The kingdoms of this world meant nothing to him compared to the kingdom of God, which is what he lived for primarily.

This particular temptation in the desert is to live primarily for the kingdom of this world, and to make the demands of the kingdom of God secondary - something you concern yourself with only after you have taken care of the so called important matters of personal financial security. Christ warns against it when he tells us not to worry about what we are to eat, what we are to wear, etc., God knows you need them; seek first the kingdom of God and everything else will be provided for (Mt 6, 32ff). But the problems of this world are all rooted in the refusal to believe this. That is why we have extreme poverty and profound injustices around the world and mass corruption on the political level. It is a refusal to believe that God is in control and will fulfill his promises to us. And so we are tempted to lie, manipulate, or engage in fraud, or some other underhanded scheming, in short, to do evil to achieve good, all because we really don't believe that God is in control and will grant us all we need.

Finally, the temptation to put God to the test. The temptation to unbelief. A priest friend of mine once said to me that celibacy was the second greatest gift that God had given him. I was curious as to what was the first greatest gift, so I asked him, and his response was: faith. Faith is the greatest gift that God has given us, and if we were baptised, the gift of faith was infused as a sheer gift into the soul. If God gave it to us, He will not take it away. So if we lose our faith, it is only because we freely chose to stop believing, for whatever reason.

Choosing to believe can be difficult, but the decision to believe in the face of widespread unbelief is always, in due time, rewarded by the light of faith, which is an illumination that provides understanding. Again, the Lord says to us, if you give me your humanity, your mind, I will give you my divinity (the light of my understanding). In the first temptation, he gives us the power to give him our bodies, in the second temptation, he gives us the power to give him our will, and in the third, he gives us the power to give him our mind.

The first move is always ours. Once we make that first move, it is God's turn to move towards us, and we will do so, and we will know it. As the Lord tells us in today's responsorial psalm says: "Because he clings to me, I will deliver him; …He shall call upon me, and I will answer him; I will be with him in distress; I will deliver him".