The Life of Christ

Mgr. E. Le Camus




THE shock of these two representatives of opposing powers was to be violent and decisive. Satan is the great agent of evil in this world; Jesus is the chief Agent of good. Which of the two shall destroy the empire of his adversary? The issue of the first struggle will give us an inkling; but it is only on the cross, when all shall have been consummated, that Satan's rout will be final. Indeed, if the demon had made his attack on God Himself, his ruin was certain from the first; he is only a creature, and his folly, however inexplicable, cannot leave him in ignorance that he must respect the Creator's holiness and bend before His power; but he enters the arena with a representative of humanity, and, as we have noted, the Divinity seems for a moment mysteriously to have veiled Itself in Jesus, to permit the man to battle alone against the onset of his adversary. This is what makes Satan so daring and the triumph of Jesus so glorious.

Near to the forbidden tree, in the earthly paradise, man had been beset by a temptation of gluttony, for the fruit was pleasant to the eye; by a temptation of presumption, for the serpent had said that he might eat it without fear of death; by a temptation, finally, of insensate pride, for man hoped by eating of it to become like God, the Sovereign Master, knowing good and evil.

In the desert, the representative of the new humanity shall again be tempted in this threefold way that leads most surely to the heart of every son of Adam, since it is naught else but the triple branch of our evil concupiscence. Satan hopes, if he is in reality in the presence of the Messiah, to change by his suggestions the whole divineplan in the Messianic work, as he succeeded in doing in the primitive work of creation. Therefore, the end he sets himself is the disfiguring of the ideal that Jesus has conceived of His mission, and which is the Divine ideal. No, Satan will say, the Messiah cannot be a suffering Messiah, exposed to human woes; He is to astonish the world by a capricious show of miracles, and to build up finally, by human means, the vastest of kingdoms here below.

In this way the tempter pays court, in turn, to sensuality, the longings of the flesh; to presumption, the pride of life, and to thirst for the goods of earth, the awful concupiscence of the eyes. But in each of these three assaults the enemy of mankind will hurl himself in vain against a word borrowed from the law of God, and will exhaust himself before a soul so perfectly holy, that it does not even stop to consider the evil thought he suggests. As the glowing iron cannot bear the drop of water sprinkled on it, but by its heat changes it at once into vapor, so the soul of Jesus immediately rejects and brings to naught the dangerous pictures called up before it. The first man had compromised all by his complaisant hesitation; Jesus will save all by allowing no delay to a conscience struggling with lust. For His life there is but one law, the law of God, and on His lips Satan will ever find a text of this law which, calmly and with triumphant irony, will come forth to rout him.

The physical condition of Jesus after a fast of forty days naturally occasions the first diabolical suggestion. "If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread." It is not right, forsooth, that He, Who is not a man, but the Son of God, should restrict Himself to the conditions of ordinary human life and suffer hunger, when, by His word the pebble in the desert can become the most substantial nourishment. Thus, again, at the close of His life, His murderers, the instruments of Satan, will shout at Him: "If thou art the Son of God, come down from the cross."

But on the first as on the last day of His career, Jesus, ever God, intends to remain a man and never to separate Himself, by a new manner of existence, from the common lot of mankind. If He, because He is the Messiah, should put aside all suffering, how could He accomplish the expiation? Ought the chief of an army that is suffering from hunger and thirst excuse himself from suffering in common with his soldiers because he is king and leader? In vain, therefore, does Satan pretend to Jesus that, as the Son of God, He has His omnipotence at the service of His sensuality; Jesus merely replies: "It is written: Not in bread alone doth man live, but in every word that proceedeth from the mouth of God." It is useless, then, to seek to draw Jesus out of that human condition which He has assumed; by the first word of His response, He energetically affirms it. Satan cannot persuade Him that He is not a man among men; therefore, instead of employing His Messianic power in His own personal interest, He prefers to forget that He is possessed of it, and to bow humbly beneath the hand and the commands of the God Who has proclaimed Him His Son. How unworthy the Demon's idea to propose to Jesus the buying of a little bread by means of a miracle! Has man nothing but bread for nourishment? Did not Jehovah provide for Israel in the desert, without giving her the bread of Egypt she longed for so bitterly? And from a loftier standpoint is not the word that comes from God into the soul a nourishment that drives away all thought of bodily needs? Can the man who tastes of it worry about the bread of earth? Heaven's beloved has only to wait with confidence; God in His Providence knows his needs, and if He cares for the soul so generously, He will not leave its bodily dwelling to a miserable death.

Satan, seeing that Jesus was superior to material life and impregnable to all sensuality, straightway removes his plan of attack to other grounds. Unable to disturb His filial confidence in His Father, he will seek now to magnify His confidence into presumption. It is not unusual for us to be moved by our consciousness of being tenderly loved to a capricious abuse of the omnipotence of Him Who loves us. Jesus was unwilling to distrust; may He not be rash enough to trust too much?

Satan then transports Him into the Holy City, and sets Him upon the pinnacle of the Temple. It was naturally fitted to be the scene of religious temptation, as the arid desert had been of sensual temptation.

The chasm cut by the Cedron was deep enough to cause vertigo. If Jesus were to descend there borne on the wings of His angels what a wonderful sight it would be for the entire city! He could well afford to refuse to prove to Satan His Divine Sonship by a miracle, but ought He not grant it to all Israel, who was awaiting the Messiah? "If thou be the Son of God, cast Thyself down." It was a strange suggestion. But as the law of God seems to be the code wherein Jesus reads His rule of life, the spirit of evil cites it in support of his proposition: "For it is written: That He hath given His angels charge over Thee; and in their hands shall they bear Thee up, lest, perhaps, Thou dash Thy foot against a stone." It is to the just that Scripture promises this help; but for far greater reason is it assured to the Prince of the just! If God thus guards His servants, how much more will He not protect His beloved Son! It has been noted that Satan craftily suppresses a word which considerably modifies the meaning of the text. God, in fact, promises His aid to the just man who keeps his way in obedience to the providential order. But the abyss is not a way, and no one will cast himself down it without a higher command.

What plausible reason could Satan suggest to legitimize this strange proposal? Did he seek to persuade Him to establish of a sudden the Messianic kingdom by a decisive exhibition of omnipotence in a journey through space before the eyes of astonished Jerusalem? This is probable. In fact, we shall see later on, with what insistence the incredulous will ask a sign from heaven that they may be moved to formulate their act of faith. Since Jesus is about to commence His public life, why not do so by a brilliant event? Why undertake those long and painful ways to make Himself known only gradually? Why consent to be discussed, despised, rejected? Is it not better to prevent all the evil that the Messiah is to suffer and others are to do, by one generous act of His great power?

Whatever the tempter's reasoning may really have been, the work he asks is a miracle that is either useless or altogether beside the Divine plan, and certainly presumptuous. In vain does Satan look for support from a declaration by God; it is not difficult to prove to him that texts of Scripture must not be used with violence in sanctioning our errors or in encouraging our whims. Certain texts, taken alone, sometimes seem to authorize our dangerous opinions, but with the context they at all times affirm the truth.

Jesus responded to this new doctor of the law: "It is written again: Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God." This advice, addressed to the children of Israel, is expressed in the plural, "Vos"; and Jesus has modified it intentionally. He desires to give His reply a twofold sense: first, He applies it to Himself in His relation to God, and then to Satan with regard to Himself, meaning _ has Satan the right to tempt Jesus, Who is his God?

The second retort, more incisive than the first, and in which we may discern the indignation that is to burst forth in the third, does not yet discourage the tempter; it only increases his uncertainty. He begins to doubt the power of Him Who has only the words of Scripture for a defense. If he is in the lists with a mere man, why not try him in his weakness and not in his strength? Taking Him, therefore, to a very high mountain, he rapidly brings before His eyes all the kingdoms of the earth and their glory, and says: "To Thee will I give all this power, and the glory of them; for to me they are delivered, and to whom I will I give them. If Thou, therefore, wilt adore before me, all shall be Thine." The snare is not so plain as one might believe. Satan does not pose as the true God, but simply as God's representative in the government of the universe. He declares that he has only delegated power, but that is enough to make him the great distributor of the goods of the earth. We have already seen the foundation he has for this assertion, and in what way, both in the minds of the Jews and in Our Savior's thoughts, Satan, at that epoch, was really the prince of this world. As universal monarch of the kingdoms he had just exhibited, he could share his throne with none but a faithful vassal ready to bend beneath his hand and to seek investiture from him. The adoration he calls for was, therefore, merely an exterior sign of Jesus' submission of His soul to diabolical influence in order to become the powerful wielder of that influence upon earth. Satan's plan was to transform Christ into AntiChrist.

But it is not true that Satan is God's representative in the world: he is God's abhorred counterfeit and enemy. He is master here by usurpation, and Jesus, Whose advent is not for the support, but for the ruin of his empire, must completely offset his wicked influence. Even though it were to disappoint the dearest hopes of His people, He will reject all material means of securing His domination, all violent conquest, all earthly conspiracy. His kingdom, purely spiritual, shall not be like the kingdoms of this world. He will build it up slowly in meekness and in patience, seeking and winning souls one by one, putting little by little into the mass of humanity the leaven that will at length transform it, and sowing with care the grain of mustardseed that will become the great tree of the new society. Satan offers glory, Jesus prefers ignominy; Satan presents wealth and pleasures, Jesus chooses poverty and suffering; the one would build the Messianic Kingdom on force and violence, the other intends to establish it on weakness and mildness. "Begone, Satan," cries Jesus, "for it is written, `The Lord thy God shalt thou adore, and Him only shalt thou serve.'"

The Son of God cannot be deceived; from the clear gaze of His soul the ideal of His earthly mission cannot be removed; no false hopes can have place within His heart. Let Satan later on make Him feel the extent of earthly powers; He accepts, for He advances to the martyrdom of the cross; but when, in the belief of all, He has been done away with, He shall come forth from His tomb to proclaim to His adversary that the means God employs ever succeed, and that through them He is forever true King of the world and vanquisher of hell.

This triple triumph of Jesus over His enemy avenges the cruel defeat inflicted long before on nascent humanity beneath the tree in Paradise. Satan has just broken his weapons in an attack on an invulnerable enemy. Henceforth man, no longer his slave, may trample under foot as the Savior has done, as often as he wills it with energy, all seductions of pleasure, of glory, and of the goods of earth. In the trial from which He has come forth triumphant, Jesus presents not only an example of valor and the secret of strength, but also, in the grace He promises, the allpowerful element of victory.

This much suffices to tell us that the temptation was a real fact, and not a mistaken parable, still less a myth.

Ecclesiastical writers, however, have long been divided as to the precise meaning to be assigned to the Gospel narrative. The greater part, taking it literally, admit that Satan appeared in physical form; and, according to them, Jesus was in reality transported to the pinnacle of the Temple, and even to a mountain from whose summit He looked upon all the kingdoms of the universe. Others, from the time of Origen, Saint Cyprian, and Theodore of Mopsuestia. think that Satan, though the immediate author of the temptation, remained invisible; that he sought to exert his influence on Jesus, as be does on our souls, by bringing up pictures before the imagination, by multiplying illusions, by murmuring perilous solicitations. To their minds, this struggle took place in a sphere purely spiritual; nevertheless there can be no doubt of the reality of the combat, of the triumph, and of the merit. The tempter is ever Satan, and whether he speaks to the ear of the heart or to the ear of the body, he is equally redoubtable. On the other hand, victory lies wholly in the free reaction of the soul which rejects evil suggestions on the instant, without suffering any contact with them. Admitting that Jesus was tempted through the senses, we must, indeed, acknowledge that finally the temptation was summed up in a moral impression which was to be rejected or welcomed. Hence, one does not clearly see the reasons for presenting physically, in material acts, a scene which belongs entirely to the spiritual order. The only sound argument is found in the expressions employed in the Gospel text. But of two difficulties, one of words, the other of things, it is better, apparently, to suppress the latter.

Besides his manifestation under the form of a serpent in the earthly paradise, we see no other evidence, in Biblical history, that Satan ever revealed himself in a visible manner. In the present instance, more particularly, there is nothing to indicate that he was seen by Jesus Christ. It is, indeed, vain for commentators to represent him as a hermit in the desert, as an angel of light on the pinnacle of the Temple, as the spirit of darkness on the mountain. Nothing is more arbitrary than their suppositions. Moreover, the transit through the air, the alighting on the embrasure of the Temple, present real difficulties, if we do not admit that Jesus and Satan were invisible both to the inhabitants of the country and to those of the Holy City. The sight of two personages traversing space and settling down on the top of the sacred edifice, would have unusually attracted the attention of spectators. Finally, it must be admitted that there is no mountain on earth from whose summit may be seen, in an instant, all the kingdoms of the world. But since, in every hypothesis, it is always necessary to accept certain details in a broad and figurative sense, it would be simpler, perhaps, to concede that the Gospel story relates to us, in metaphors, the threefold interior combat which Jesus sustained against Satan and from which He came forth completely victorious.

The Evangelists in certain details of their history appear to confirm this view, even where the actual text seems to exclude such parabolic meaning. Thus, St. Mark, epitomizing in one verse the history of the temptation, leads us to suppose that it took place entirely in the desert. In St. Matthew and St. Luke the order of the last two temptations is reversed, which would be of no importance were it a question of a purely psychological fact, whereas there would be an error in one or the other of the Gospels if the facts treated of were external and actual. In both, after the physical transportation supposed in the second and third temptations, Jesus ought to be brought back to the desert; but the narrator does not bring Him back, because he never supposes Him to have left it. Lastly, in carefully reading the three Synoptics, it seems that, according to St. Mark and St. Luke, the temptations were continued during forty days, and the three principal ones recorded for us took place at the close of this period. All these details plainly cause this story to hover between the material and external reality, which is rather difficult to admit, and the psychological and internal reality, which is, moreover, sufficient to maintain the importance of the moral lessons conveyed to us by Jesus.

Saint Matthew's expression, that Satan coming to the Savior tempted Him, might be explained in this way, that in the world of spirits there are comings and goings of which we can give no idea, except by the use of words which make the thing perceptible.

Less explicit than his predecessor, Saint Luke contents himself by saying that Satan spoke to Jesus. He must have spoken the language of spirits, in our opinion, and through suggestions, terrible influences, he must have solicited His soul interiorly; it was in imagination that he placed Him on the pinnacle of the Temple and on the mountain, and it was before His mind only that he made the kingdoms of the earth and the depths of the abyss to be in evidence. No more was needed to try Jesus. Physical reality would add nothing to the temptation. The Savior could not have conquered with greater glory, nor could Satan have failed with more disgrace.

However that may be, the historical and moral issue remains the same, for the visible and invisible fact being a reality, the example is equally instructive, and the grace procured likewise abundant.

Satan, shamed by his repulse, retired for a time only; for, although seeming to suspect the Divine personality of Jesus and trembling before His power, he was determined to seize upon any opportunity of renewing the attack. At the foot of the cross, at the final moment of the agony, Satan's supreme effort will be put forth only to be nullified. There only will he admit his complete and irremediable defeat.

In the meantime, in the place of him who fled in confusion, the angels of heaven hasten to the side of the Vanquisher; they seek to honor and comfort in Him the new humanity which has just been associated with their ancient victory over the spirit of darkness; they surround Him piously as a brother found again after the battle, covered with glory and worthy of the most legitimate triumph.

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