The gospel reading for the first Sunday in Lent comes from Luke 4:1–13. The temptations of Christ in the wilderness sets the stage for the rest of Jesus’ life leading up to his crucifixion and conveys several layers of theological meaning.
For instance, by spending 40 days and nights in the desert, Jesus mirrors Israel’s 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. The author of the Gospel evokes the memory of the Exodus to make a theological claim that Jesus embodies and personifies liberation for all.
This passage opens with a mysterious salvo alluding to an epic spiritual battle.
“Filled with the Holy Spirit, Jesus returned from the Jordan
and was led by the Spirit into the desert for forty days,
to be tempted by the devil.”
What does it mean that Jesus was filled with the Holy Spirit?
How was he led by the Spirit?
Then there’s the part about the devil tempting him. Did the devil have some kind of visual appearance? How did the devil find Jesus in the desert?
As the incident unfolds, the enigmatic events multiply. The devil “took him up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a single instant.” The devil offers all of these kingdoms to Jesus, but Jesus refuses.
After those negotiations break down, the devil led Jesus to Jerusalem, took him to stand on the parapet of the temple, and made him a new offer. I wonder how they made it from the desert to the temple. Did anyone see them? “Hey, there’s Jesus and the devil. What are they doing here?” I guess if you can show someone all of the kingdoms of the world in a moment, getting to the temple unseen is no big deal.
It’s easy to focus on those unusual happenings. We like the intrigue, especially since it has a spiritual edge to it. And that’s probably why it has such a lasting interest. This is the stuff worthy of a high-tech Hollywood thriller.
Imagine, though, if Luke had written, “Jesus fasted for 40 days in the wilderness then went home.” That doesn’t make the same impact.
With all of the spiritual complexity going on here, one statement strikes me as perhaps more theologically important than all of the others. It comes at the beginning, and it’s so subtle that it’s easy to miss.
“He ate nothing during those days,
and when they were over he was hungry.”
This is probably the most understated sentence in the entire New Testament. Who wouldn’t be hungry after not eating for over a month?
And that seems to be the point. Jesus is like everyone else. He’s human, not some magical creature without physical needs. He was not a shadow of a man or simply the specter of an actual person. Jesus is not God pretending to be a human. The fact that Jesus got hungry testifies to his incarnation.
While the mystery of the incarnation is at the heart of Christian faith, it is not an end unto itself. God did not decide that it would be fun to become human and see what would happen. The incarnation is the means through which God achieved the goal of divinization or theosis.
St. Athanasius wrote, “God became human so that humans might become God.” He is not saying that individual people might become their own God one day. Instead, through Christ, people share in the life of the Trinity.
During the Mass in the Roman rite, the priest affirms this belief in the prayer during the co-mingling of the water and wine. “By the mystery of this water in wine, may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity.”
The incarnation and divinization are not disembodied doctrines. They must take concrete form in the way we relate to others.
Just as Jesus was hungry after not eating, and just as I am hungry without eating, so is my neighbor hungry without eating. Just as I would want someone to share food with me after I had fasted for 40 days, I have an obligation to share my food.
Other people are not simply extras revolving around our starring role. People do not exist to serve me. I have a duty to recognize Christ in others and treat them as I would treat him. Honoring Christ in others is the practical outworking of the incarnation.
Jesus taught that whatever we do to those who are most in need, we do to him. “I was hungry and you gave me food” (Matthew 25:35).
The hunger of Jesus points beyond an external cosmic fight to an inner struggle I have with myself. How will I treat others? The hunger of Jesus draws me to the truth of the humanity of Jesus, how he shares that humanity with all of us, and how that shared humanity creates an obligation for me to feed those who are hungry.