The Temptations of Christ and the Paschal Triduum

A Reflection

Satan Being Cast Out by Carl Heinrich Bloch (1834-1890)

I am not sure what to call this. It is not an exegesis. As a theological reflection, it lacks a certain rigor. It does seem to work as a spiritual/homiletic/liturgical reflection, and that’s how I’ve proposed this when I have taught it, and preached it, on several occasions. I have used this as a First Sunday of Lent homily, and as a preaching series for Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Vigil. I have received positive responses when it was taught or preached, by laity and brother priests. I have been encouraged by my brother priests to publish this, so at their behest, I submit it for your consideration. Here, I am going to greater extent in theological explanation than I would in a homily for clarity’s sake. The approach to a homily, that I was taught, and which I have followed, is that the first part is an explanation of the text, and then a exposition of how to apply the lesson from the text to life. In this paper, I will only go into the explanation of the texts as they have struck me. I leave it to any homilist using this to draw his own applications to life and growth in Christ.

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One of the things that I continue to do is look for someone in history who has had a similar insight. I find it hard to believe that I am the first one, in two thousand years, to have seen the comparison I am about to make. Maybe it was just so obvious that no one thought to write about it, and I am the dense one, or I’m completely off-base, and by publishing this, someone will rightly shoot me down, giving me further cause for growing in humility.

So on to the premise: It hit me a few years ago, looking at the whole of Lent, its beginning and ending, that the Temptations of Jesus and the Paschal Triduum form “bookends” to Lent. How? There is a certain perverse reflection between the Temptations of Christ and the Paschal Triduum. Each of the Temptations presented by the devil has a parallel in the Last Supper’s Holy Eucharist, Good Friday’s Death, and Easter’s Resurrection. In this reflection, the order of the Temptations will be taken from Luke’s account for no other reason than it was the Gospel for the First Sunday of Lent Cycle “C” for 2016.

He ate nothing during those days, and when they were over he was hungry. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread. (Lk. 4:2b-3)

 Then he took the bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which will be given for you; do this in memory of me. And likewise the cup after they have eaten, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which will be shed for you. (Lk. 22:19-20)

The devil tempts Jesus to not only perform the miracle of transubstantiation on a stone, but also to perform another miracle in the form of “transaccidentiation.” Otherwise, Jesus would have found the “bread” impossible to eat because of the accidents of the stone. Following the theology of the Holy Eucharist, in the Last Supper, and at every Mass, the substance of the bread and wine are transformed into the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ. All that remains is the appearance, the accidents. The priests out there will remember from Seminary that this approach was based on Aristotle’s philosophical understanding of matter. St. Thomas Aquinas took this understanding and used it to explain how the Holy Eucharist could be at the same time truly the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus and still have the appearance of bread and wine. It also helps to explain what the devil was asking Jesus to do.

Jesus did not give into the temptation and satisfy selfish hunger with a one-time outcome. Rather at the Last Supper, he have us something greater. He chose his “bread” to be the means by which he would repeatedly share himself with us. He gave us himself through the transformation of the substance of the bread so that we would, in faith, be called to see more deeply. As it is written in the Tantum Ergo, “Faith for all defects supplying, where the feeble senses fail.” In this quest of faith, our transformation in Christ can be nurtured and continued, our defects, our whole self, transformed into what Christ calls us to be. Here, we find in this greater miracle, the satisfaction of our hunger for God, and God’s hunger for us. In this Holy Com-“union” there is a real joining: us to Christ, and Christ to us. Christ wants to join with us as much as we need to join with Christ. Where, then, the devil would have Jesus do the selfish—keeping the focus on the worldly, the sensual—Christ chose the selfless—the transcendent—in his giving himself to us in the Holy Eucharist, and shifting the focus to what leads to our good, and the Kingdom of God.

Even Jesus’ direct response to the temptation, as seen in Matthew’s Gospel, points to the Eucharist:
“One does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (Matt. 4:4)

Bread alone is not what Jesus, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, gives us. His word:
“This is my Body … This is the cup of the new covenant in my Blood,”
which comes from the mouth of God, and transforms ordinary bread and wine into the Holy Eucharist that gives us eternal life.

“I am the living Bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.” (Jn. 6:51)

(I am not going to try to relate this to any of the speculative theologies that are trying to preserve the truth of the Holy Eucharist, but use different language than St. Thomas’ use of Aristotelean language. I don’t know enough, and St. Thomas’ language is still, at the moment, the official theology of the Church.)

Then he took him up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a single instant. The Devil said to him,” I shall give to you all this power and their glory; for it has been handed over to me, and I may give it to whomever I wish. All this will be yours, if you worship me.

The devil is trapped by his assumption that Jesus is an earthly Messiah. He offers earthly power, glory, and kingship. Jesus is offered an easy and selfish way to that worldly kingship. All he would have to do is surrender his will, the will of the second person of the Holy Trinity, to the devil, and replace the Father with the devil by worshiping the devil. In effect, accomplishing the goal of the devil’s original rebellion. What the devil lost by direct assault, he would try to accomplish through a “backdoor” approach.

Jesus in his Resurrection, becomes the transcendent King of the Universe, sitting at the right hand of the Father. He accomplishes this by submitting himself to the will of the Father.

 …he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross. Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every other name that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil. 2:9-11)

Jesus is raised to glory, now exercising real authority. The authority to change lives. It is a more difficult way, but the way that is for the benefit of every human being. Earthly kings exercise coercive power, power that remains only if it is hoarded to a few, or for one. They get compliance by force. The devil could not see Christ’s different Kingship, a kingship that could be shared. We are given a share in Christ’s own kingship of Love. Christ gets compliance by changing lives through love. As it says in the Rite of Baptism, “As Christ was anointed Priest, Prophet, and King, so may you live always as members of his body, sharing everlasting life.” We share by Baptism in his anointing by the Holy Spirit (by which he is made the Anointed One, the Messiah, the King.), are incorporated into the Body of Christ, and express the kingship of Christ, with Christ, in a Kingship of Love—the only kind of kingship that could be shared. Love is only love if it is shared, and it is by Christ’s own love, expressed in his grace of salvation, that lives are changed. We participate in Christ’s kingship when we live out the meaning of the great commandments of love: when we are identified as his disciples by our love in inviting others, then, to know the King of Love. It is in this love, then, that he loves us so much that he shares even his very life with us, giving us eternal life with him forever, so much does he love us.

Again, Jesus’ direct response addresses not just the Temptation, but it’s relationship to, in this case, the Resurrection. “It is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and him alone shall you serve.” (Lk. 4:8) Not only will Jesus not give the devil some backdoor victory in rebellion, but emphatically proclaims that it is the Father’s will that he serves. This then points back to the Phillipian’s hymn, where Jesus’ obedience leads to his exaltation.

Then he led him to Jerusalem, made him stand on the parapet of the Temple, and said to him, “ If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written: ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you,’ and ‘With their hands they will support you, lest you dash your foot against a stone.’”

I was told once that the execution for blasphemy was to be thrown off the Parapet of the Temple. This was the penalty inflicted on the Apostle James. Though the fall did not kill him immediately, so they finished him off below. The Parapet was a tower on the exterior wall of the Temple precincts, above a low valley, so the fall would ordinarily be deadly. There is a kind of concurrence in having the devil encourage the means of punishing a blasphemer to Jesus—the devil being the arch-blasphemer. One could almost imagine the devil’s delight in some fantasy where Jesus took the bait.

This kind of death would have been a suicidal defiance of the will of the Father. It was not the chosen way for Jesus to die. If Jesus would have thrown himself off the Parapet, and the angels would have caught him, fulfilling what the devil presented as prophecy, then it would have been to no avail, a useless gesture. If Jesus would have fallen to his death, an actual suicide, it would have been a useless death, rather than a saving act—accomplishing nothing—because it would not have been in accord with the Father’s will for the saving of the human race. It is not the Father’s will, either as a suicide—which is never the Father’s will—or as a subverting of the timing of the saving death of Christ. Christ would never have taught or called the disciples together. Nor were the means of death the Father’s will, which was to be at the hands of the human race whom Christ saves.

When Jesus is condemned, in the trial before the High Priest and Sanhedrin, the charge is “blasphemy,” even though the official charge before Pilate is “treason.” So Jesus dies at the hands of the Jewish leadership on the charge for which the devil had tried to tempt Jesus into enacting: blasphemy. Officially, the Jewish authorities did not have the power to put someone to death. When a person fell to his death off the Parapet, it was a spontaneous action of the surrounding mob in taking the matter into their own hands by pushing the person off, similar to the mob stoning St. Stephen to his death.

Since the Jewish authorities did not have that power, they took Jesus to Pilate who did have the power to execute on the charge that Jesus was setting himself up as a rival king to Caesar, in effect, treason. Pilate quickly determined that the leadership wanted Jesus dead for their own reasons, and that Jesus was innocent of this charge. The Roman Provence of Palestine was considered hardship duty, as the population was always chaffing under Roman rule, trying to find someway to get the Roman occupiers out of the Land of Israel. As Governor of this contentious Provence, Pilate was interested in keeping the locals happy, so if it took a judicial murder to do this, so be it. While Pilate tried to find a way to avoid executing Jesus, he was more interested in keeping it quiet.

Now Jesus’ Passion and Death happened at the “right time,” kairos, by the will of the Father.

Jesus answered [him], “You would have no power over me if it had not been given to you from above.” (Jn.19:11)

Jesus has taught. He has called the community of the disciples together, and given them leadership, teaching authority, and the means to extend grace to humanity through the sacraments. All that now remains is the Atoning action of his passion and death. Here, Jesus turns an act of judicial murder into the action that justifies us. In surrendering himself to the will of the Father, Jesus makes the Cross his altar. In surrendering himself to the Father’s will, Jesus becomes the Priest. By dying, Jesus becomes the sacrificial victim. In the Letter to the Hebrews, the Principle Sacrifice of the Day of Atonement is when the Blood of the Sacrifice is taken into the Temple’s Holy of Holies, and sprinkled on the Mercy seat of the Ark of the Covenant, in atonement for the sins of the people. In his Crucifixion, Jesus enters into the “Holy of Holies” of Heaven before the Father, atoning with his own Blood for the Original Sin, and all sins thereafter, freeing us from the penalty of sin and death, and giving us freedom, and eternal life in Christ. The selfish effects of temptation and sin are overcome by the self-giving, self-sacrificing love of Jesus in his Crucifixion.

In his response to the devil in the temptation of Jesus at the Parapet, Jesus emphasizes his obedience to the Father’s will in all matters, including his death: “You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.” (Lk. 4:12) There is a plan and purpose to Jesus’ death which cannot be turned into some convoluted outcome—if you will—making the Father “jump through hoops,” so so speak. Each step in Jesus’ ministry is an ongoing evolution of the Father’s plan, gradually unfolding. The test is not simply whether Jesus’ fall will be prevented by the Father on the way down. It entails putting the whole of the Father’s plan into jeopardy. If Jesus’ died in this fashion, at this time, how would the Father put things right? This would test the Father’s willingness in saving humanity. In fact, Jesus’ response throws into the devil’s face something the devil is loath to admit, and that is that God is the God of everyone, even of the devil. There are limits to the devil’s abilities in trying to thwart God’s plans which the devil is forced to obey, no matter what. Exorcists in the Church can attest to that truth. The devil cannot thwart, or trick, or prevent God from completing that which He wills, that which He has been laying down through the ages.

The temptations of Jesus highlight the primary difference between the mission of Jesus, and the effect of giving into temptation. The devil’s temptations leads to the selfish, the sensual, and the worldly—and, therefore, what leads one away from the path to God, and necessarily, away from the Kingdom of God. In the Paschal Triduum, we see that Jesus came to overcome, not just the effects of Original Sin, and humanity’s helplessness in the face of the devil’s depredations, but to share deeply of Jesus himself, giving us hope in the face of death, and raising us up into the transcendent Mystery of God.

All quotes from Scripture from: New American Bible, © 1981; Devore & Sons, Inc., Wichita, Kansas, 67201

Fr. James Orr About Fr. James Orr

Fr. James R. Orr is a priest of the Diocese of Pittsburgh. He is currently pastor of St. Aloysius, Reserve Township, and Most Holy Name of Jesus, Pittsburgh, and Director of St. Anthony Chapel which enshrines 5000 relics of the saints. He teaches in the Diocese of Pittsburgh’s Catechist Certification Program and the Post-ordination Program for the Diocese of Pittsburgh. He holds a Bachelors in Religious Studies from Penn State University, a Master of Divinity from Mt. St. Mary Seminary, Emmitsburg, MD, and a Master of Arts in Formative Spirituality from the Institute of Formative Spirituality, Duquesne University.

Comments

  1. Maggie Shea says:

    New insights for me. And I couldn’t find it anywhere either. For what little that’s worth

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