Sunday, February 21st, 2021

‘Iesus ut tentaretur’: A Homily for the First Sunday in Lent

At that time Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert, to be tempted by the devil (Matthew 4, 1).

We live in an age of deception. And while this should by no means make us paranoid, so often things are not as they seem. It is difficult to know the true quality of a thing or circumstance or of person. The fog of war hangs over our little portion of the spiritual battlefield of the Christian life. And what are we to make of it? 

We should at least begin with this: the Church is exquisite in her wisdom to give us this Gospel for this Sunday, which in the days of St Gregory was the true beginning of Lent. For today we behold the temptation of Christ—in which is contained every grace for you and me in our temptations. We can say that easily enough; but it contains worlds of grace. In light of this, we are impelled to consider the mystery of temptation.      

In the Tridentine catechism, a little treatise on temptation is contained under the heading of the sixth petition of the Pater Noster,[2] and lead us not into temptation. Quite obviously, it speaks to this Sunday in particular. The catechism begins by telling us what the word temptation implies in its most basic linguistic meaning: to tempt is to sound out, to test by way of gaining information from a person or situation. A trip to Lewis and Short confirms it.[3] Tentare or temptare is related to tangere, ‘to touch;’ and in medical contexts, for instance, tentare is used for the action of checking a pulse. So, when it comes to the etymological character of the word, temptation does not imply anything that is necessarily insidious.    

With that in mind, however, the catechism continues and establishes a distinction. God, who knows all things, obviously does not tempt in this way; there is nothing he needs to test in order to complete his knowledge. But the character of temptation is dependent upon its purpose. We quote the catechism at length: 

Temptation has a good purpose, when someone’s worth is tried, in order that when it has been tested and proved he may be rewarded and honored, his example proposed to others for imitation, and all may be incited thereby to the praises of God. This is the only kind of tempting that can be found in God.[4]     

Already we begin to see a portion of the grandeur of the action of grace in the soul. And when St Matthew tells us that Our Lord was led ‘by the Spirit’ into the desert, this is the sort of temptation we see in Christ. In a sense, it is the Father bringing to light the strength and glory of his Son. 

But the catechism of Trent also teaches that there is another kind of temptation, and this is the sort of temptation we normally think of: namely, temptation unto a bad purpose, when the soul ‘is impelled to sin or destruction.’[5] This is when Satan, employing the means at his mysterious disposal, attacks, assails, and otherwise disquiets the soul. The adversary does indeed sound us out, but with the aim of inducing our failure and ruin. And in today’s Gospel, Christ is the subject of this sort of temptation as well.  

Therefore, in the Gospel, Christ unites in one mystery these two aspects of temptation. And it is for this reason, then, that we can speak of temptation in a fulsome and mature way—thereby giving us reason for confidence. We see that temptation has a twofold nature, depending upon its origin and purpose. As one saintly liturgical commenter of the last century puts it, 

The faithful should contemplate with special devotion this mystery of Christ tempted in the desert, for there is no other which shows more clearly how the divine Providence makes even the wiles of the devil serve our sanctification by using temptation as a crucible in which to purify our virtue . . . [6]    

He says we ought to encounter Christ’s temptations ‘with special devotion;’ I suspect we fail to do this. For when temptations come our way, God is never our adversary, but ever has in mind our good. It follows that panic should never be our reaction in the face of temptation—but rather, a steady, courageous, confident rejection of sin and choice for God.   

But then we have to wrestle with the truth that all of us here have, in one way or another and at one time or another, failed before the onslaught of some temptation. What then? What comes to mind—and the catechism uses this passage also—is the consoling sentence from the Letter to the Hebrews: ‘For we have not a high priest, who can not have compassion on our infirmities: but one tempted in all things like as we are, without sin.’[7] Now Christ has left us the holy priesthood for many reasons; but today I suggest to you that one of those reasons is to encourage the Catholic faithful in the midst of their temptations. 

This is true because, even when the priest may be a fool or a scoundrel, he is still an instrument of Christ the High Priest. When we see the priest take the pulpit or post himself in the confessional; or when we see him in the office or at his errands about town—but especially when we see him treading the footpace before our altars, we see a man tempted. For every priest goes out into the desert with Christ; and in every priest Christ perpetuates his own victory. Once again, without respect to the personality of the man, every priest is a sign which tells us that, in Christ, all temptation is conquerable. 

To come full circle, then, we see the function of temptation: to leave us undeceived. It tells us what a man is, both for ourselves and for others. Yes, temptation is a function of realism in the spiritual life; by it, we begin to know.—When we are tempted, no amount of self-flattery, self-deception, or self-reliance will save us; the deadly necessities of our improvement are revealed; and we are impelled to fly to Christ and his Holy Mother and the saints for shelter and aid. Which is just why we hear Psalm 90 so frequently at today’s Mass.   


[1] Cf The Sacramentary, Schuster, vol II, p 57.

[2] Cf The Catechism of the Council of Trent, trans John A McHugh OP and Charles J Callan OP, London: Baronius Press, 2020; pp 523-529.

[3] Cf A Latin Dictionary, Charles Short and Charlton Lewis, Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1879; entry ‘tento,’ p 1855.

[4] Catechism, p 523.

[5] Ibid, p 524.

[6] The Sacramentary, p 56.

[7] Hebrews 4, 15.

{Art Credit: Briton Rivière (1840-1920), The Temptation in the Desert, 1898; Guildhall Art Gallery}

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