The cross, which is the principle image of our Lenten pilgrimage, is an unforgiving reminder of the sacrifice required of each of us, in order to share in the passion and death of Christ, and thus also in his resurrection. Yet knowing that such sacrifice is demanded of us, we know also that, “if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him” (Rom. 6:8). In other words, we know that the wood of the cross is not dead, but alive through the sacrifice enacted upon it. As an ancient hymn in honour of the cross recalls, “Thou alone wast counted worthy / this world’s Ransom to sustain, / that a shipwrecked race for ever / might a port of refuge gain, / with the sacred Blood anointed / of the Lamb for sinners slain.” The cross, which appears to others as a sign of utter brutality, is to the Christian a life giving, enabling, and saving symbol of hope. As Saint Paul says: “the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18).
Yet the glories of the cross are dependent upon the sacrifice of Christ. Again, as that ancient hymn puts it, the wood and iron of the cross become sweet because the one enthroned upon it is himself sweet. He redeems the grim instrument of death, and by it gives us hope and life. And it is the uniqueness of this redeeming action, which brings life from death, that is recalled in the gospel for the First Sunday of Lent. In subtle ways in the gospel, the particularity of the sacrifice and redemption of Christ is revealed to us, that we might become ever more convinced of our need of his saving passion, and so cling more fervently to the cross by which our eternal salvation is assured.
By recalling the forty days and forty nights that Christ fasted in the wilderness, tempted by the devil, the passage from which we have just heard speaks not simply of the events that led to Christ’s ministry of preaching, but also of the history of salvation in a manner that emphasizes that, in Christ, there is something new—a fulfilment of all that has come before. Both the number forty and the place of the wilderness are significant. Forty represents a time of patient preparation for a coming event of importance. The wilderness is a place of solitude, characterized by a particular closeness to God. Thus our own Lenten journey of forty days and forty nights is itself not simply a reenactment of the temptation of the Lord in the desert, but our own ecclesial and individual struggle to ascend the mountain, in order to reach not simply the annual celebration of the Paschal solemnity, but also the fullness of that gift in the eternal vision of beatitude of the kingdom of God.
With this in mind, we will recall that the Book of Exodus tells us that Moses spent forty days and forty nights on Mount Sinai in solitude and isolation, as he prepared to receive the law and the covenant between the Lord God and the People of Israel. We read: “He was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights; he neither ate bread nor drank water. And he wrote upon the tables the words of the covenant, the ten commandments” (Ex. 34:28).
And we think also of the First Book of Kings, which speaks of the preparation of Elijah in the wilderness, again for forty days and nights. The Lord sent to him an angel, with cake and water, as he was initiated for his prophetic ministry (1 Kgs 19:8). And we of course know of the forty year journey of the Israelites, from slavery in a foreign land, through the Red Sea, to the salvation of the Promised Land. Guided by the Lord God, and fed by him with heavenly manna, yet still sinning and falling away from the covenant inaugurated between them.
It is with these events in our minds that we can see the uniqueness of Christ’s own wilderness experience, and thus the demand that is placed upon us to comprehend his essential role in our salvation. Unlike the prophecies of Moses and Elijah, which prepare us to accept the salvation offered us by Christ, the sacrifice of Christ itself offers us the fullness of revelation in an eternal covenant sealed in his own blood: “The Son is his Father’s definitive Word” (CCC 73). Unlike the Israelites, who fell into sin through temptation, Christ is not only victorious over the temptations presented to him in the wilderness, but in the end puts death itself to death. As we recall on Easter morning: Mors et vita duello conflixere mirando: dux vitæ mortuus, regnat vivus. And as the Epistle to the Hebrews puts it: “For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15).
And in order to help us to undergo this temptation in the wilderness of our life, one which we live in microcosm in this annual fast, the Lord does not send us cakes and water, manna, or quail. Rather he sends us himself, in the re-presentation of his sacrifice on this altar, and in the gift of Holy Communion, which is not simply food for a physical journey but for the pilgrimage each of us undertakes from the Red Sea of the sacred font to the Promised Land of our heavenly inheritance. It is our viaticum: food for the wayfarer, for the journey.
Meditating on the temptation of Christ in the wilderness is thus a reminder that he “perfected revelation by fulfilling it through his whole work of making himself present and manifesting himself: through his words and deeds, his signs and wonders, but especially through his death and glorious resurrection from the dead and finally with the sending of the Spirit of truth” (DI 5). In acknowledging the unicity of the salvation offered in Christ, may this Lent bring us to see this truth anew and, so seeing, putting nothing before it.