Originally written as a homily for the First Sunday of Lent.
by Fr. Jet Villarin, SJ

“Filled with the Holy Spirit, Jesus returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the desert for forty days, to be tempted by the devil (Lk 4:1).”

With the Holy Spirit to fill us, you’d think that life would be a walk in the park. Now we know, even in the Garden of Eden, you could not really stroll around very far before you got lured by that tree and talking snake in the middle of it all. Even with the Holy Spirit by our side, we cannot deny the reality of conflicting desires and fears in our lives. Temptations are just that: desires and fears colliding. You’d think that with God in the garden, there would only be harmony and no temptation. You’d hope that with the Lord as our shepherd, there would be nothing else that we’d ever want.

But we are always wanting, the thirst never quenched. We are creatures of desire, creatures that are conscious even of desire. Who we are, what we are made of, the longings that well up from within us: all are mystery. We are a bottomless mystery which cannot be reduced simply to evolved survival instincts and biophysical stimuli.

If we are honest, we know somehow which desires lead us to nowhere and leave us empty or hurt. If we are patient, there are moments too when we know which desires bring us to some sense of fullness and even greater desire.

With the Holy Spirit to guide us, you’d think that we’d be led straight to the Promised Land, without a detour through the desert (lasting 40 years or 40 days or whatever, 40 being a number that means a lifetime). Now we know better. The desert is not a detour. The desert is the journey. The wilderness is this life. And it is to this wilderness (a garden no longer, and no tree either) that the Holy Spirit leads Jesus the new Adam to another face-to-face encounter with the talking snake.

Sensing déjà vu in this, you’d expect the serpent to propose again what was offered in Eden, i.e. (a) life never ending, (b) living like gods, and (c) with eyes opened, knowing good from evil (Gen 3:4-5). By the way, this is why the devil is exceptional in deception: offering these perks was a lie; granting these would have spelled its own ruin since (a) the devil’s only hold on us is death and our fear of it, (b) it has nothing to gain if we started living like gods, and (c) it has a stake in shuttered eyes that do not know good from evil.

Anyhow, as the gospel story goes, the devil takes a more subtle tack with the new Adam this time around. In the desert, there was no fruit of any tree that was forbidden. There were only desires (and their attendant fears) branching all over the place. The devil knew very well that Jesus was hungry; that he was intent on inaugurating the kingdom of God founded not merely on the knowledge of good and bad but on a new order of love; and that he was going to Jerusalem to be crucified.

Now this is why the devil is the grandmaster of deception: it takes those desires and fears, and turns them around. In the first temptation, it seizes Jesus’ desire for survival and uses his identity (which Jesus must have cherished as the beloved Son of God) to trip him up: “if you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” In the second instance, banking on Jesus’ desire to accomplish that for which he was sent (i.e. the kingdom of God), the devil offers him the power and glory of “all the kingdoms of the world in an instant” if only he would transfer allegiance and disown God. In the third and most subtle instance of all, the devil brings Jesus to Jerusalem and offers him a way out of the humiliation he was bound to suffer there. The diabolical way out is for Jesus to reassert his sonship by tempting God to mobilize his angels and spare him the disgrace of falling and dying on a cross.

The story does not tell it but the interior struggle must have been agonizing. As it is with all the Adams and Eves who have had to contend with their identity and mission amid the colliding desires and fears in their lives. As it must be now for Benedict XVI who has had to confront his own diminishment in the wilderness through which he has been shepherding the Church.

Reflecting on the Pope’s resignation, Fr James Martin SJ writes: “As the Gospel says, ‘The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve.’ Perhaps the most difficult part of service is setting aside one’s own plans and goals; surely Benedict feels he has some unfinished business left. As an elderly Jesuit I know likes to say, ‘There is a Messiah, and it’s not you.’ Leaders can learn a lot from a man who knows that he is not indispensable, that he is not Christ. He was only his vicar, and only for a time.”

With snakes in the wilderness, you’d think that we’d never survive.

About Jet Villarin, SJ

Fr. Jet is a Filipino Jesuit priest and scientist, who is the university president of Ateneo de Manila University. He received the National Outstanding Young Scientist award in 2000, and the Outstanding Book Award for “Disturbing Climate” in 2002. He is also an active member of several local and international environment and climate committees, such as the United Nations’ Consultative Group of Experts for Developing Countries, and the Inter-Agency Committee on Climate Change, among others.

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