And the temptations he lays before Jesus are not so stupid as they may at first appear. They are temptations to take the easier route, to avoid the cross. He invites Jesus to avoid conflict, to cultivate popularity, to be acceptable and stay safely in the center.
The temptation story serves us well at the beginning of Lent. This is a season in which we are to strive harder to resist temptation, to avoid sin, and to renew our faith. So we need to remember that temptation is often not crass or vulgar. It is often an elegantly stated proposal to lay aside narrowness and to get with the program. It is often pushed by very nice people. It can arise from our own desire to be nice.
Rarely – for most of us – does temptation take the form of shooting those we hate at the entrance to the courthouse, even though hatred might ferment in our hearts. We are sufficiently well bred and sufficiently Christian to curtail the most grotesque of sinful actions most of the time. So as we move through Lent we should not congratulate ourselves for avoiding bank fraud or adultery. We need to look at where temptation really lies, and it lies just as Satan puts it to Jesus in the temptation story: go along to get along.
William James, the nineteenth century philosopher of religion, was a man of wealth and taste, deeply interested in religious practice, but for him religion was “what a man does with his privacy.” Religion of this sort is a hobby, a matter of private preferences and judgment. In such a view there is no room for truth and of course no call for conflict. People who think that religion is “what a man does with his privacy” do not pray outside of abortion clinics. Nor do they need to dirty their hands trying to improve the lot of the poor. Ladies and gentlemen after all avoid fanatacism.
Or our temptation is to look the other way as our culture descends into greater toxicity and to imagine that we can somehow just live with it. We may not be able to change the crass pointlessness of most television, but we don’t have to watch it or let our children watch it. We may not be able to change the rampant cult of acquisition, but we can avoid buying what we do not need, and we can give to the poor and to the support of the ministry of the Church. Jesus said, “where your treasure is there will your heart be also.” If we put our treasure where it belongs, our hearts will be more pure and faith-filled.
We may not be able to undo the destruction wrought by the sexual revolution, but we can support and assist our bishops as they resist efforts to impose it on the Church and to legislate a redefinition of marriage that would nullify its natural, created connection to the begetting and raising of children.
But to do such things is to risk becoming as unacceptable as Jesus – which is exactly what we should be doing. And if following Jesus is offensive to those of wealth and taste, so be it. If we dare to dissent with courage and with love, the wise among them might even start to watch Christians with more open minds and hearts.
Popular or not, we follow Christ and struggle against temptation because we have seen the glory of the cross and the beauty of faith in the triune God. And this past week we have seen goodness and beauty in a fresh way. I refer to the decision of Pope Benedict to step down from the Petrine office. It was an act of great grace and courage, executed with his characteristic humility, a humility born of deep faith, a humility that exists genuinely in the soul of a man who is among the most learned and brilliant the world will ever see. The press will do its usual routines of course, and they will return to the sex abuse scandal because it’s something they think they can understand. But even the secular press has a fuzzy grasp that with the last two popes they have been exposed to a greatness that is rare indeed – and almost nonexistent among the celebrities and politicians who more commonly occupy their attention.
But we who live in the Church that knows Benedict as Holy Father have seen in his leadership a faith, hope and love that remind us why we try to live lives of faith, hope and love. He knows Jesus Christ and wants us to know him as well. And to know Jesus is to know the one who did not yield to the temptation to flee the cross.
Nor has Pope Benedict fled the cross in laying down his office. Blessed John Paul taught the world magnificently how to weaken and die just a decade ago. It did not need to be done again. Rather than continue for an indefinite time in a weakened state, the pope has stepped down, trusting that the Lord will take care of the Church and confident that the Church’s only indispensable Shepherd lives and reigns forever.
We seek to resist temptation and to live with faith and courage in part because of those who have exemplified what it means to know Jesus Christ, as Pope Benedict has done.
And there is one more thing. We resist the temptations to surrender urged on us by those of wealth and taste because of the beauty that has been set before us. This was brought home to me powerfully when I was relaxing at the end of Ash Wednesday. We had recorded the Mass at St. Peter’s in Rome in part because I wanted to hear the pope’s homily at this last public event of his papacy. It was, as always, significant.
But it was the liturgy that seized me. Pope Benedict has worked hard to restore the beauty and dignity of the liturgy, so often undermined and trivialized by foolish choices made in the years since Vatican II. He is among so many other things a musician, and we heard the results in chant and polyphony. As always in a Vatican Mass there was the movement, color and pageantry of the liturgy in that grand space. But there was more than the musical, visual and architectural beauty. There was human beauty.
Humanity is not always beautiful; that’s not often what we first perceive when in a crowd. But here was human beauty. It struck me first as people approached the pope to receive ashes but even more so as the knelt before him to receive the Body of Christ. As always, those selected represented a wide range of the baptized: prelates, monastics, and men, women and children of all races and backgrounds.
There at the moment when human nature encounters the grace of the Eucharist we can see a beauty denied to us in so much of modern life. I don’t mean that they were better dressed than the slovenliness that characterizes the way so many Americans leave the house, though they were dressed up. The beauty was the human encounter with the divine, not with the person of the pope but with Jesus Christ, in whose name he serves.
We tend to seek transcendence in sublime moments of human power like elections or human achievement, as in athletics. And there, to be sure, we get a taste of glory. But it is not enough. Baltimore won; it was a good game, but it is not enough. Many a man will die sadly wearing a Super Bowl ring. The fisherman’s ring will be broken when the pope steps down, yet he will not die in sorrow but in the faith and joy that characterized his life.
There in the great basilica we saw the beauty to which humanity is called and the hope that Christ offers the world. In the Eucharistic bread – for we cannot live by bread alone – we encounter the eternal and are bound together in hope for a restored human community. The Eucharist is the foretaste of the Kingdom, where beyond sin, temptation and death, God will complete us. That beauty of that vision is reason enough to fast, pray, give alms, resist temptation, and return to the confessional. Wealth and taste cannot compare."