IN reality, it was the voice of God the Father that opened the Messianic era at the moment when, on the banks of the Jordan, He announced that Jesus was His wellbeloved Son, the object of Heavenly favor. This voice proclaimed simultaneously to John that, the Messiah being come, he had only to present Him to Israel, and to Jesus that the hour had struck in which He was to inaugurate His public ministry.
We can understand that, from this moment, the soul of the newly baptized was, on the one hand, filled with gratitude and love toward God, Who had consecrated Him as the Messiah; and on the other, seized with a holy fear at the stupendous and superhuman task He was called upon to undertake. It was then that, to give Him time for thanksgiving and to make an immediate preparation for the Divine work, the Holy Spirit took possession of Him, and, not suffering Him to return to Galilee, drew Him into the solitude of a vast and savage wilderness.
This wilderness was the mountainous and uninhabited country running from north to south along the western coast of the Dead Sea. Whoever has wandered once in his life amid these waste solitudes can never forget the impression of fear and loneliness that comes upon him as he beholds on one side the immense sea of sandy hills, spread out in yellow, motionless waves, and on the other, rocky peaks overhanging driedup torrentbeds, whence all life seems to have vanished, burnt up as soon as it appeared, by the sun or the simoom. It was to one of these ravines or to the, summit of one of these mountains1 that Jesus retired. We have visited these solitudes, and they are not less horribly mournful and deserted today than of old. Hermits still take refuge here in dark caverns whose possession they dispute with the hyenas and jackals, and strive by extraordinary fasts and devotions to honor the place of the Savior's retreat.
Fully resigned to the Holy Spirit, in the midst of this desert, abandoned nature, Jesus completely lost sight of the outside world. Never thinking that He had a body to nourish and to preserve from the dangers of the climate and from the teeth of wild beasts, He wandered about at hazard, filled with the great thoughts that shook His soul.2 In like manner had Adam dwelt in the solitude of the primitive world; but instead of a desert he had a paradise, and, surrounded with the delights that creation offered, he ruled the animals, andto them assigned names and orders. But, whereas Adam forgot what he owed to God and to his posterity, and thought only of the culpable longings of his soul, Jesus was ever wholly in contemplation of His personal relation to His Father and of His new duties with regard to fallen humanity. The one bad destroyed us by his gluttony; by fasting the latter prepares to save us. Adam listened to the demand of the flesh; only the pious movements of His soul are heard by Jesus. What transpired within that soul? What hymns of gratitude did the wellbeloved Son address to the Father, Who had just consecrated Him Messiah? To divine them one must himself be on the level of that perfect union. When, on earth, the just man hears God's word fall into his troubled heart, he feels a joy so lively that he at once goes into an ecstasy. Seized at all the points of contact of his being, he readily forsakes the affairs of earthly life to give himself up to the sweet impressions of the life of heaven. The chants of joy, the cries of love, the calm repose, and the profound sensation, in this quietude, of the possession of God, succeed each other in the depth of that happy soul. This, in the highest degree, is what Jesus must have experienced in the retirement of the desert and in recollection beneath the eye of heaven. Abandoning His soul entirely to the breath that bore it aloft, for forty days He drew His nourishment from God alone and from His interchange of love. Unceasingly he heard His Father's call, and unceasingly He offered Himself, ever repeating the prophetic Ecce Venio.
Then the clear vision of His Messianic labor rose up before Him in vast proportions of awful shadow and glorious light. The superior will which He intended to fulfill demanded not the death of the wicked, but their conversion and their life. It was for Him, therefore, to seek and to save that which was lost. This was the entire world; He was to penetrate it with His thoughts, to transform it in its aspirations, to govern it by His law. He will call this spiritual and moral work the establishing of His Kingdom or the Kingdom of God. His aspirations were, therefore, that He might become nothing less than the King of all mankind restored, saved, and united by Him in one fold. He has no secret intention of disturbing earthly monarchies: King of souls, He desires not that His royalty may be as the royalty of this world.
Higher and more certain than anything transitory, His power, by the suppression of all distinctions of race and nation, shall extend over all religious hearts and build up the most lasting and most universal of empires. But before the final triumph, He reckons up in detail all the difficulties that the wicked shall raise against His work, the faithlessness of His people, and the obstinacy that shall prove their ruin. So that in the background of the picture of His public life, He can discern, like a shadow of blood, the gibbet that will bring about the final catastrophe. His soul perceives in the Messianic prophecies the story of all the woes that await Him, and a most overwhelming stupor succeeds to His most lively joy.
In these alternate sentiments of supreme beatitude and profound distress, of generous love and holy fear, He existed during these forty days. Forty was the sacramental number, in the expiation of sin or in intercession for sinners. The waters of the deluge fell forty days and forty nights on the guilty world. For forty years Israel wandered in the desert in punishment for her faithlessness, and forty was the number of blows the criminal received for his crime.3 Finally, Moses and Elias had fasted solemnly for the same length of time, and the Ninevites4 themselves had sought to repair their sins by forty days of penance.
Was the fast of Jesus an absolute fast? St. Luke affirms it categorically,5 and recent examples have proved that man, even without supernatural aid, can live seven weeks without taking nourishment. Only, in the present instance we must acknowledge that the moral state into which Our Lord entered became an efficacious help to human nature when there was danger of defeat. The effect of ecstasy is, in truth, the absorbing of the material life in the powerful current of the spiritual life. But such a state must have its limit of time, and then maltreated nature claims its rights with renewed force. This was the moment chosen by Satan to present in definite outline the temptations with which he beset6 Jesus during the forty days.
1 Every one knows that the tradition of the Middle Ages indicates the Quarantania as the place into which Jesus withdrew. But steep and rocky as this mountain appears, was it not too near Jericho to be the desolate spot spoken of by the Evangelist as far removed from all human habitation and overrun by wild beasts? From these heights one could, in fact, contemplate the Great City, and its noisy thoroughfares, in the midst of its oasis of palms and rosetrees. Any one who was hungry and athirst on Mount Quarantania could easily descend the mountain and buy bread in Jericho, without resorting to a miracle to get food. Farther on, either to the west or to the south, the solitude would be far more fearful and wild. The gorges we have followed in the Kelt of the side of TellelFara, though less burned up than the sandhills on the shores of the Dead Sea, are neither less mournfully silent nor less frightfully barren.
2 St. Luke iv, 1, hgeto ... en th erhmw, depicts the external agitation of Jesus as He went from place to place in the desert, manifesting thus the moral work to which His Soul devoted itself.
3 Deut. xxv, 3, and II Cor. xi, 24.
4 4 Jonas iii, 4.
5 He says ouk efagen ouzen, which prevents us from taking the expression of Matt. iv, 2, nhstensas, in a wide sense, and admitting that the fast, while excluding ordinary nourishment, did not exclude roots, leaves of the trees, and wild honey, as perchance in the fasts of Moses and Elias.
6 According to Luke iv, 2, and Mark i, 13, it would seem that temptations followed each other during the whole sojourn of Jesus in the Desert. The three related at length, as coming at the end of the forty days, are, as it were, an example and summing up of the whole.
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