1st Sunday of Lent Genesis 2.15-17;3.1-7 Romans 5.12-19 Matthew 4.1-11
The desert is a dangerous place. It’s where you encounter Satan and wild beasts. In the minds of people who are followers of the BBC cult series Being Human, now being replayed on BBC i-player, that would put it on a par with Bristol.
The storyline is basically a contemporary update of the flatshare theme. There’s Adam, a teenage vampire, Christa, the werewolf, and Matt, a ghost and it’s filmed in Bristol.
It would, I think, be folly to attempt a painstaking analysis of the Being/Becoming Human story that turned it into a moral discourse with symbolic meaning. It’s too fast for that. But there is a lot of material suggesting a bestial darkness that distorts human behaviour.
In fact, the genre of anthropomorphic beasts lies deep within the heart of Christian iconography. Look at any picture of a medieval doom painting showing heaven and hell, and there they are. Today’s first reading similarly describes the serpent as “more subtle than any beast of the field” (Genesis 3.1KJV) and presents it as the embodiment of evil that we shall learn to call Satan.
Paintings of the bestial serpent tempting Eve often show it upright, sometimes twisted round a tree and talking to her face to face. Among the most imaginative is the early 15th century depiction by Masolino in the Brancacci chapel of the Carmelite church in Florence. Here the serpent has a human face: Eve’s. This is not a sexist statement: it’s a psychological one.
We fall prey to temptation when we develop an inability to see anything other than ourselves. In some respects Masolino tells a Genesis story that is echoed in the Greek myth of Narcissus who falls in love with his own image. The consequence is the same: death.
The prospect of death is what prompts us in Lent to undertake a journey in search of Jesus, driven by an abiding need to repeat the question, “Who are you?” That need is fuelled by conviction, often oddly tentative, that he alone can show us how to be fully ourselves, fully human, fully alive.
Matthew’s account of the testing of Jesus in the desert reworks the experiences of the people of Israel. To those people God says, “See, I have set before thee this day life and good, and death and evil” (Deuteronomy 30.15KJV). The three responses that Jesus gives to the devil (Deuteronomy 8.3; 6.16; 6.13) come from the account of Israel’s trials and temptations during their forty years of travelling from slavery in Egypt to the freedom God promised.
The struggle for the Israelites, as for us, is how to retain a clear vision of something other than our own image. Masolino’s image of what tempts us is the projection of ourselves. He brilliantly captures the sense that this is not actually about the reality within, but fascination with a fantasy self that has the capacity to blind us to the truth.
Today’s gospel account of the trial of Jesus in the desert starts us on a series of questions that will lead to disclosure of his true identity at Easter. But this start is an intriguing one. The story does not set out to tell us simply that if Jesus can withstand the temptations of the devil, so can we. It’s more subtle than that.
This story speaks to us about a different way of being chosen by God and being human. In Jesus we see one like us. He is the representative figure of Israel, or as Paul suggests in today’s second reading, the new Adam. In contrast with the destructive legacy of the old order, Jesus shows us a different way. The matter is summed up in the letter to the Hebrews: “For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4.15).
The 20th century Jesuit, Karl Rahner, writes very imaginatively about this episode and how it helps us to find an answer to the question, “Who are you, Jesus?”
In these days of desert silence, as later in Gethsemane, and in the trial of the passion and death on the cross, Rahner sees the consciousness of divine sonship in Jesus “realise itself only gradually during his spiritual history.” This does not come from a quest for knowledge of self, but a claiming of that which is already his, the immediacy of vision in which the Son looks at the Father with the delight of eternal love.
What is being described here is an episode of trial in which the human consciousness of Jesus rejects a synthetic image, becoming aware instead of his true identity as son of God. Furthermore, it tells us that our human consciousness can function in a similar way, connecting us with a dawning perception of our true character and destiny: those who can see God.
The adventures of Being Human imaginatively explore horribly familiar territory that goes nowhere beyond obsession with ourselves. It’s an old mantra: “I hate the way I look!” Today’s gospel invites us into new territory. See beyond the looks: invest in reality that is eternal.