~Collect for the First Sunday in Lent
Last Sunday, we heard St. Luke's account of how Jesus was "led about by the Spirit in the wilderness for forty days, being tempted by the devil." The Daily Office readings from the Letter to the Hebrews for this week have built upon this theme. In chapter two, the writer to the Hebrews says, "Since then the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil ... for since He Himself was tempted in that which He has suffered, He is able to come to the aid of those who are tempted."
Saint Augustine writes,
Our pilgrim life here on earth cannot be without temptation for it is through temptation that we make progress and it is only by being tempted that we come to know ourselves. We cannot win our crown unless we overcome, and we cannot overcome unless we enter the contest, and there is no contest unless we have an enemy and the temptations he brings. (Discourse on Psalm 60)I think these words have particular power today, at a time when many, even within the Church, are reluctant to speak of either sin or the devil. Given that the Church in times past has, in my opinion, sometimes overemphasized the same makes this understandable, but not justified. For it is indeed hard to separate sin (not simply vague, impersonal corruption in which we are stained by association, but personal, willful evil which I myself commit) and the devil (not just a personified symbol of evil, but a spiritual reality, an enemy against whom we wage battle by the grace and in the power of Jesus) from the New Testament, and the Gospels in particular. I'm reminded of H. Richard Nieburh's famous criticism that "A God without wrath brought a people without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross." Incidentally, praying the Great Litany (BCP, pg. 148-155) is a good antidote for this kind of delusion.
But lest, while being "assaulted by many temptations", we start to get discouraged, we do well to bear in mind that this battle has already been won. The good news is that Christ has already overcome the world, and He that is now within us who believe is greater than the evil one. Augustine continues:
When he willed to be tempted by the devil, he figuratively transferred us into himself. We have just read in the gospel that our Lord Jesus Christ was tempted in the desert by the devil and this is exactly what happened. In Christ you were being tempted because Christ had his human flesh from you, just as he won salvation for you from himself. He received death from you, just as he gained life from himself for you. From you he received reproaches and from himself for you he gained glory and honour. In the same way he suffered the temptation for you and he won from himself the victory for you. If we have been tempted in him, in him we conquer the devil. Do you notice that Christ has been tempted and fail to notice that he overcame the temptation? Recognize your own self, tempted in him and conquering also in him. He might have avoided the devil completely but, had he not been tempted, he would have failed to give you the lesson of conquering when you are tempted.So, in this, as in all things, we have in Christ our supreme example. But more than an example, by Christ's Incarnation, we have become joined to Him by faith. He takes our weaknesses and transfers to us His victory. "For we have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end" (Hebrews 3:14). It is because of this that we live in victory, even as we acknowledge in this penitential season of Lent that "our pilgrim life here on earth cannot be without temptation." As the writer to the Hebrews assures us in closing chapter four,
Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and may find grace to help in time of need.