On this, the First Sunday of lent every year we have an account of Jesus going into the desert to fast for forty days. You may have noticed that the stories in the four Gospels do not agree with each other. The temptations on the mountain and on the pinnacle of the temple are in a different sequence in Matthew and Luke, while Mark’s account of Jesus in the desert leaves out the three temptations; and in John’s Gospel instead of going into the desert after his baptism Jesus went to Cana for the wedding feast.
Since we use the expression of something being “the gospel truth,” we expect gospel stories to be factual; but obviously the four can’t be if they don’t agree with each other.
What’s going on here? Well, the answer to that is that the gospels never set out to give us factual accounts. No, while their stories are loosely based on the facts, the four
Evangelists constructed them in ways that informed us about deep mysteries of our religion.
Let me get at the deep mysteries Matthew constructed his story to teach us. St. Paul in Ephesians 1.10 told us that God’s master plan in regard to mankind was to “sum up all things in Christ.” That is saying that it is God’s plan to have every person whoever exists to live in a secret relationship to Christ. In today’s Gospel Matthew told a story of Jesus coming up from his baptism then entering into the desert for forty days of resisting temptations. That story symbolically stated that Jesus was deeply related to the people of Israel who came up out of the water to spend forty years in the desert.
In portraying Jesus as coming up from his baptism to spend forty days of trials in the desert the Gospel is also symbolically expressing the relationship of Jesus to each of us. The number forty stands for a full lifetime. We come up from our baptisms to engage in lifetimes of struggling with temptations.
Today’s Gospel story is closely related to Our Lord’s mission in life. He came to die to save us. Now, in thinking of his death we usually consecrate on his crucifixion; but remember, two thieves underwent the same crucifixion that day and those deaths had no value to them. In a most potent verse, Paul in Roman’s 6.10 said of Christ, “His death was a death to sin.”
Our Lord’s physical death was only the outward expression of the real means by which he saved us. Beginning with these days when he came up from his baptism going into the desert to be tested it was his lifetime of resisting one temptation after another that became a tsunami of generous love that saved us by rolling back our tidal wave of selfish sins.