I’m sure many of you remember that useful old categorization device from elementary school, the Venn Diagram. You had two circles – one representing one category, the other representing another, and then a space in the middle where they overlapped. So, for example, you could put cheese on the left (gouda, cheddar), cake in the right (chocolate, carrot), and in the middle, the things that are both (cheesecake). Today in our readings we get something of a Venn Diagram of the Christian life. St. Paul in Romans traces for us the outlines of two different circles, two different human lives, two different men: the Old Adam, and the New. By one man, he tells us, sin and death entered the world; by another, grace and life. By one man, disobedience; by another man, righteousness. This reminder, then, that Christ is the New Adam, the greater counterpart to the Old, helps us remember where to place Matthew’s Gospel for today in the context of the whole biblical story. Christ’s temptation in the wilderness is juxtaposed with another temptation long ago in a garden. Jesus, the New Adam, today faces the devil in the desert, just as the Old Adam once faced the devil in Paradise. We have two circles here, two stories side-by-side: one in the garden, one in the desert; the Old Adam on the left; the New Adam on the right.
The first Adam had everything in front of him, the deck stacked in his favor: placed in the garden of delights, with abundance and plenty at his fingertips. And yet he failed to keep what had been entrusted to him, refused to receive with attention and gratitude the gifts that had been placed into his hands, and instead tried to grasp at a wisdom he thought he could procure for himself. The second Adam, Jesus, had nothing in front of him but a barren wasteland, nothing at his fingertips but the heightened sensations that accompany want. And yet, having nothing, he possessed everything, his soul perfectly ordered to the Creator, and from that place of settled stillness, he was able to see through all the illusions by which the devil tried to ensnare him. Instead of giving in to those lies, Jesus spoke and acted from the reality of his filial intimacy with the Father, offering up in that wilderness of temptation the perfect obedience that Adam always owed and always failed to give.
As Christians, we exist in the overlapping space between these two scenes of temptation, as in the common space between the two circles in a Venn Diagram. The circle on the left is the Old Adam; the circle on the right is the New. We’re in the middle, as members of both categories. In baptism, we were made members of the New Adam, clothed with the pure linen garments of righteousness, grafted into the vine whence flows our eternal life, given the power to become the sons of God. But so long as we labor here below, we always also bear about in our bodies the Old Adam as well, who is constantly stirring us from within to grasp at the allures of the world, those fruit trees that we think will make us wiser than God, perennially tempting us with the illusion that we are our own masters.
St. Benedict once said that his monks were to live their lives as a perpetual Lent. Might seem like a bit of a downer, but no doubt what he meant by that is that Lent gives us the itinerary for learning how to live well in that overlapping space in the middle of the Venn Diagram. It makes sense, then, that we begin this Lenten journey by looking at Christ’s sojourn in the wilderness. How so?
Well, the story of Christ in the wilderness takes a threefold shape. The devil brings before him the three classic temptations enumerated by St. John in his first epistle: the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. The lust of the flesh is what you normally think of as lust – though it’s not just sexual; it’s more broadly described in the old language as “carnal concupiscence.” It means the tug of our bodily passions to exceed their proper bounds, whether it’s for food, sex, sleep, or physical comforts in general. The lust of the eyes refers not to sexual arousal, but rather to our excessive curiosity to see and know things that are none of our business – the rubber necking in traffic that wants to see the accident; the listless clicking on hyperlinks to read yet another frivolous news clip; the corrosive gossip that spreads like wildfire through the sacristy; everything in us that chases after the spectacle. The pride of life, finally, refers to that insatiable longing to be recognized, honored, esteemed, admired, to make other people impressed by you so that you have power and influence over them, and therefore so that you can have mastery and control over your own place in the world.
Christ was tempted by all three. If you’re hungry, the devil said, then command that these stones be made bread, and gratify your desires. If you’re uncertain, then make this spectacle of yourself; force God to show you his hand, and then you’ll never have to rely on trust again. If you’re really the king of the world, then I can give you the honor and admiration and power you deserve, without the inconvenience of the Cross; have some pride, and the world is yours. The lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. These are the temptations Christ faced. And these are the temptations that constantly tug at us, trying to pull us back into the sphere of the Old Adam, even as we struggle to orient ourselves towards the New. Their force is strong, and the gravity of our habits is heavy. But what Benedict was saying is that Lent and its characteristic disciplines provide us with the counterweight to this diabolical gravitational pull.
Fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. This is what the Church summons us to in these 40 days, the concrete practices of the Lenten itinerary that ought to mark the spirit of the whole Christian life. Let’s take them one by one. Fastingcounters the flame of carnal concupiscence. Every natural thing that God has given us is good in itself, and to be received with thanksgiving – including food, sex, sleep, and physical comforts. But most of us are in the habit of looking to these things for far more satisfaction than they are capable of giving. They’re good for us only when they are used in the right way, and abstaining from them for a time by a reduction in their quality or quantity helps strip us of the illusion that they will still our restless hearts, or that we will ultimately be satisfied by anything other than the infinite Good for which our desires were made. It will help us see that only in that endless sea of delight that is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost will our limitlessly capacious longings find their fulfillment.
Prayer is that discipline that introduces us into the world of true knowledge. When we take the words of the psalms on our lips; when we close our eyes and imagine ourselves in Capernaum with Christ, on the seashore listening to him teach, among the crowds receiving his miraculous provision, in the upper room as he washes our feet; or when we gaze with our eyes upon an icon, upon a crucifix, upon these stations as they lead us with our Savior to the Cross of Calvary – when we contemplate these things, when we engage in these practices of prayer, we are learning to see reality as it truly is. We are chastening our lust to gaze upon the spectacles of the world, our curiosity for news headlines or media commentary or nasty rumors that won’t make us holier (to say the least), and we’re filling our hearts instead with the sights and sounds of truth. Indulging our rapacious desire for unnecessary information has the potential to leave us only more anxious, fearful and suspicious. Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God. That’s not to say we shouldn’t pay attention to the news; just that God wants to remind us that the frightening world does not have the last word. We learn to trust him in peace and tranquility not when we ensure that we have all the facts, but when prayer reorients our imaginations to see that the world is in his hands.
Almsgiving, finally, is the discipline that counters the illusion that we are self-made creatures by forcing us to open our hands. We’re told to release our pride by releasing those things we habitually use to convince ourselves that we are important, deserving of esteem, and in control of our place in the world. Above all, of course, we do this with money, and so the Church tells us to give. This is a reminder that almsgiving is not just about helping other people, or supporting the work of the Church, though of course those are good reasons to give. But almsgiving is also about you releasing the idea that you deserve what you have. That’s not to say, by the way, that you could have deserved it if you’d just been a little better. It’s rather to say something much stronger: that you have nothing that you did not receive – your health, your abilities, your house, your job, your life itself, even your work ethic – none of this came from you. It’s all a gift, all the way up, all the way down. Every instant of your entire existence has been sustained and upheld and moved forward by the one who called all things into being with a Word. “All things come of thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee.” “Worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve.”
Of course, Lent, again like the Christian life in general, carries with it an inevitable irony. The more seriously we try to incorporate these classic Christian disciplines in our lives, the more tempted we are to think that we ourselves are really doing a pretty good job fending off those three weapons of the enemy. Pride is a slippery one, and when we shove him out the front door with our self-giving generosity, he tends to sneak around through the back door of our subtle self-congratulation. And so through all of it the key is always just not to take ourselves too seriously. Lord have mercy, we say again and again in our prayers. Ultimately, we’re not trying to win our own victory over the devil, using Christ as our model. All we’re doing is allowing him to sow in us the fruits of his victory which he has already won, once and for all. We won’t be the ones who ultimately get ourselves out of the middle of the Venn Diagram. That will only happen when God finally buries the Old Adam for good. One day that circle on the right will fall away, and all that will be left for us is to be safely enclosed in the circle of the New Adam forever.