Reflection by Fr. Lou DelFra, CSC - ACE Director of Spiritual Life
Remember that we begin the Sundays of each Lenten season with one of the evangelist’s account of Jesus’ temptation in the desert. Jesus does not eat for 40 days, an exercise in some small way shared by us in our Lenten fasting. The devil, sensing that Jesus is growing weak from the fast, arrives to tempt him.
Three times the devil tempts him. First, “Turn these stones into bread.” Then, “Worship me, and I will give you all the cities of the world.” Finally, “Throw yourself off this parapet, and show that God’s angels will catch you.”
In other words, three times the devil says to Jesus, “Let us use your power as God to your own advantage. Use your power as God to serve yourself.” In a way, this is the great temptation of Jesus in the desert, at the beginning of his 40 days: to use his power to serve himself, rather than to serve others.
Of course, all 3 times, Jesus refuses. Luke, however, concludes his account with a most terrifying line: “And the devil withdrew from Jesus, and awaited a more opportune time.” It is as if the devil realizes he has lost the battle, but refuses to lose the war. He goes off into hiding, and waits for Jesus to be in a position of weakness again.
In today’s Gospel of the Passion, the devil gets his wish. Never has Jesus been in a weaker, more vulnerable position – hanging on the cross, breathing his last breaths. It seems the devil ought to let him die. His main adversary is going down, and it seems the devil ought to sit back and let it happen. But instead, something quite different happens – the devil, surprisingly, takes on a much more active role.
The people surrounding Jesus on the cross begin speaking to him. First, the rulers: “You saved others. Now save yourself.” Then the soldiers: “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself.” Finally, a thief, hanging next to Jesus, offers the same temptation: “Save yourself – and us too.” In their challenges, we hear the re-emergence of the devil who first battled Jesus in the desert, at the beginning of our Lenten journey. He is using the same temptation that he used at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry: “Use your power as God to serve yourself, rather than others. Don’t pour your life out for others – what a futile act. Save yourself.”
Perhaps Luke is suggesting that our greatest temptations, our most important discernments, involve not so much what we do with our weaknesses, but what we do with our gifts.
In the Gospel of the Passion, Jesus shows us a higher way – the seemingly absurd Way of the Cross. In the Gospel of the Passion, Jesus triumphs definitively over the temptation to “use our gifts to serve ourselves.” He shows us that the gifts he has been given were not given to use for his own sake. They were given to him for the service of others – and the greatest of all these gifts is life itself. As we look back upon Jesus’ life from the perspective of the Cross, this is all we can see – a constant giving away of his gifts, of his life, for others. He exercised his power and his gifts constantly – but always, for the sake of others.
The message of the entirety of Jesus’ way of life is made completely clear in the Gospel of the Passion, the end of our Lenten journey, and the gateway into the Life of the Resurrection: if we wish to save our lives, we must give our lives away in the service of others.