Lent developed backwards from a celebration of the paschal triduum, when the catechumens were baptized and admitted to the Eucharist. The Good Friday and Easter Vigil fast was gradually extended to a 40-day fast, and after the conversion of the Roman Empire, with the decline of adult baptism, the season was celebrated as an occasion of conversion for the whole church.
The Old Testament readings recount great events of saving history, especially those that prefigure the Gospel accounts. The first two Sundays of Lent in each cycle recount the testing of Jesus and his transfiguration, which are narrative forms of the hymn in the Letter to the Philippians (2:6-11): that Jesus emptied himself, taking on the form of a slave, even to a slave’s death, but was exalted by God so that every tongue might confess him as Lord. Since this hymn was most likely used very early in the liturgy of Christian baptism, it offered not only a theology of the Christ event, but a pattern to be imitated by Christians.
The traditional description, “Temptation of Jesus,” is misleading, since today we interpret “temptation” to mean enticement to sin. The Greek is better translated “testing” and reflects the Old Testament theme of the testing of righteous people—e.g., Job, the servant in Isaiah 53 and the suffering just person, who though tested by God remains faithful and is called a child of God (Wis. 2:12-20; 5:1-23). Trial or testing also enables good people who undergo undeserved suffering to see in Jesus one who is compassionate and has suffered with them (see Heb. 2:18: “because he himself [Jesus] was tested through what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested”).
In contrast to Mark’s brief statement that Jesus was tested by Satan during 40 days in the wilderness, Matthew and Luke have dramatic descriptions, derived from an earlier source, that reveal their distinctive theologies, which are expressed primarily in the order of the tests by Satan. In Matthew the final test, when Satan offers “all the kingdoms of the world,” takes place on a mountain, as does Jesus’ first great sermon and his final commissioning of the disciples, when he commands them to spread the Gospel to all the world—those very kingdoms offered by Satan.
The testings also evoke the original falling away of humanity in Adam in the Book of Genesis. Satan introduces the first two tests with the phrase, “If you are the Son of God,” which evokes the image of Adam created as a child of God. What the devil proposes to Adam and Eve is immortality and that they will be “like gods.” Though as humans they are created in the image of God, they want to transcend humanity and usurp the power of the Creator. Jesus is then tested to show that he is Son by startling demonstrations of divine power: turning stones into bread, having command over the angels. Jesus, whom Paul will call the last Adam, reverses the sin of Adam.
Though called in Matthew “God With Us” from his birth, as the Gospel unfolds Jesus will not manifest his equality with God by demonstrations of self-serving power, but appears as “a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Mt. 11:19), as the servant who will not break the bruised reed (12:20). He draws to himself those who labor and are burdened—not by overweening power, but because he is meek and humble of heart (11:29). By accepting the fullness of humanity, Jesus is truly the Son of God.
This Lent would be a good time to reflect on the massive horrors that have resulted over the last century from the quest for unlimited power, that originating sin that strives for control over nature and other people. Christians should cringe every time they hear the refrain that we are “the most powerful (or better, power-filled) nation on earth.” Throughout the world, brutal dictators destroy the resources and spirits of their nations, and our ordinary lives often become miniature arenas of larger power struggles. Sadly, the quest for justice can be corrupted into a struggle for control. In our contemporary church, polarization over liturgical minutiae often represents nothing more than a desire to lord it over others.
Jesus resisted this primal temptation toward misuse of power, while emptying himself so that we could experience true power: liberation from the fear of death through his Passion and Cross; confidence that even when we are of little faith, we can hear his words, “Take courage; it is I; do not be afraid” (14:27); openness to see his presence not in the “kingdoms of the world in their magnificence,” but in the least of his brothers and sisters (25:31-46).