Feast of Gerasimus the Righteous of Jordan
THE GOSPEL reading for the first Sunday of Western Lent is Mark 1:12-13: “The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered to him.”
The beauty of the Temptation in Mark’s gospel is its brevity. Without the specifics offered by Matthew and Luke, Mark gets right to the heart of the combat that ensued between Christ and Satan immediately after Jesus’ Baptism. The immersion of the Paschal candle into the baptismal font at the Easter vigil is a reminder that it is Christ who sanctifies the waters, not the other way around.
Normally, in our fallen world, the devil tracks us down. He catches us when we least expect it, insinuating himself into our thoughts and leading us onto the wide way of perdition. But notice, the tables are reversed here. Jesus does not wait to see what the evil one will do. Instead, he confronts him head on by boldly storming the wilderness, the abode of the devil.
There are many interpretations of the passage, of course. But, following the Fathers, we see in Jesus the new Adam come to vanquish the power of Satan over mankind. The wilderness, once a Garden, offers Jesus no resistance and the beasts, recognizing perfect man, do him no harm. Satan is caught by surprise. Having enticed Adam to death, he never expected to find God in human form, and this sealed his defeat (St. Hilary of Poitiers).
St. John Chrysostom emphasizes that this is all for our instruction. Temptations often occur when we most ardently desire to follow Christ. St. Hilary reminds us how eagerly Satan desires victory over the saints. Our failure to understand this point can lead to great discouragement when we experience our moral and spiritual weaknesses, difficulties and opposition. Like it or not, we are engaged in a great battle.
But we dare not take up this struggle on our own. Not even St. Antony of the Desert dared to engage Satan in his own strength. Rather, as St. Athanasius makes clear in his Life of Antony, the devil failed to seduce him, not because of Antony’s strength but because of “the triumph in Antony of the Savior.” It was Christ who sought out Satan in the desert. And it was Christ as the second Adam who defeated him. In Him alone is our hope.
As we enter into Lent, the Church invites us to more consciously grapple with our own temptations, the vices and sins that give evil a point of entry into our lives. And She admonishes us, like Antony, to rely on Christ to help us overcome them.
Two books that can help us engage in this combat are The Spiritual Combat by Fr. Lawrence Scupoli and Unseen Warfare edited by Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain and revised by St. Theophan the Recluse. We highly recommend them both, especially for the Lenten season.
Jeri Holladay writes from Wichita, Kansas where she has been Associate Professor of Theology, Chairman of the Theology Department, founding Director of the Bishop Eugene Gerber Institute of Catholic Studies at Newman University and Director of Adult Education at the Spiritual Life Center of the Diocese of Wichita. She has also served on Eighth Day Institute’s Board of Directors.