Chesterton said, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”


The Order's Annual Retreat for Knights was held at Douai Abbey from 31st March to 2nd April.  There follows below the texts of the first of two conferences given by the Chaplain to the Grand Priory, The Reverend Dr Antony Conlon, Two reflections based on the Bible commentaries of Prof William Barclay and Pope Benedict XVI’s book Jesus of Nazareth.  The second will follow in another post, as will the later conferences of the Retreat.

  The Spirit and the wilderness

The first thing that we need to get to clear is the meaning of the word tempt in this context. The Greek word perezein used in the Gospels should be translated as “test”. It means to entice someone to do wrong or to take the wrong way. This is a familiar theme in the Old Testament. Abraham and Moses are classic examples of it. The Jews had a saying, “The Holy One, blessed be his name, does not elevate a man to dignity till he has first tried and searched him ; and if he stands in temptation then he raises him to dignity.” The aim is not to weaken us but to make us stronger through overcoming the ordeal. It is the test which comes from God to those whom he wishes to use. Jesus is tested in his humanity as the prophets and patriarchs were. It is another example of how he submitted to every contingency of weakness to which our human nature is subject. He was not spared that mental turmoil which accompanies the moral choices that risks personal calamity and hardship by rejecting the safer path of convenience, compromise and evasion. The second thing to notice is the place of the testing: the wilderness. Again, it is the biblical setting that strips away all the props and disguises that can be used to counterfeit righteousness and virtue. There’s no possibility of escape from the stark choices that have to be faced and resolved. Jesus is about to confront his mission and the consequences that flow from it and his human resolution must be forged in the fierce isolation from material comfort that the desert represents.  

Between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea is the place called in Hebrew Jeshimmon, meaning Devastation, which stretches over an area of 35 by 15 miles. It is utterly barren, scattered with stones and in the daytime glimmers with heat like some vast furnace. As it reaches the Dead Sea there is drop of 1,200 feet, a drop of lime and flintstone that runs unevenly through crags and precipices. Jesus went there alone to prepare for his public life and to contemplate both its dangers and its demands upon him.   He would not be followed and he would not be disturbed. We find examples of such periods of solitary surrender and subordination of the will to a divinely revealed mission throughout biblical history. The desert is the place where the demon is confronted, the motive is purified and trust in God alone is firmly established.  Jesus went there, we are told, in response to the prompting of the Holy Spirit. Jesus, unique of all the men who have ever undertaken a spiritual odyssey was united in his divine nature to his eternal Father, but was yet free in his humanity to choose and to respond to the natural impulses of fear, anxiety, isolation and terror. It was in his human body that he must deal with the human tragedy of sin and death and that required him to steel himself against any urge to flight or to stand aside. Three of the four Gospels all use the same phrase to describe the prologue to this testing episode: “The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness” (Mk 1:12). This followed his baptism by John.  We must always approach this story with a unique and special reverence. In it Jesus is laying bare his inmost heart and soul. Only he could have known what he went through during this time of solitude.  It is therefore a precious example of a revelation that both describes a personal victory over the great adversary of mankind and provides an example of how it was gained.

As Jesus had entered into solidarity with us in his acceptance of a baptism of repentance, which he did not need, so he now allows himself for the first time to confront the mortal enemy of mankind, who seeks to oppose virtue and repudiate obedience to God. Recognising the subtlety, specific to Jesus mission, of each of the three temptations are an essential ingredient for understanding their allure. They offer both an escape from the harsh inevitability of suffering and an instant and entirely material road to success, popularity and celebrity. The temptations are presented wrapped up in attractively altruistic and philanthropic propositions that mask a hidden agenda of betrayal. Lies and deceit pervade their every sentiment. At the heart of all temptations is the act of pushing God aside because we perceive him as secondary, if not actually superfluous and annoying, in comparison with all the far more urgent matters that fill our lives. As Pope Benedict describes it in his book Jesus of Nazareth, “Constructing a world by our own lights, without reference to God, building on our own foundations, refusing to acknowledge the reality of anything beyond the political and material, while setting God aside as an illusion- that is the temptation that threatens us in many varied forms. Moral posturing is part and parcel of temptation. We are not invited to directly do evil – no, that would be far too blatant. It pretends to show us a better way, where we finally abandon our illusions and throw ourselves into the work of actually making the world a better place. It claims, moreover, to speak for true realism; what is right there in front of us for the taking, power and bread”.  Who needs to wait on the timetable of heavenly intervention when an instantaneous and obvious solution presents itself? This is at the heart of the temptations described similarly in the Gospels. Matthew’s account presents them in a logical and ascending level of intensity, from instant relief of hunger to world domination.

Jesus had fasted for forty days, a biblical number of rich symbolism for Israel. It recalls the years of the wanderings of the Chosen People in the desert and the days of Moses on Mt Sinai. In his acute hunger he is offered an apparently simple relief. Turn stones into bread. This was not just a personal remedy for his own immediate needs but an invitation to redress a universal problem with a gesture of defiance that challenged the providence of God. The desert was littered with little round limestones, conveniently and attractively shaped like small loaves. But the test comes in words that are both deliberately mocking as well as facile. “If you are the Son of God”…He is also being challenged to establish his credibility by offering evidence of his claims. This challenge will follow Jesus right through the three years of his public life and be echoed even as he hung on the cross “If you are the Son of God, come down…” This same demand is made constantly of God and of his Church. Show us a sign. Give us proof that you care. Part the clouds and give us clarity. If you want us to believe, do better than you have been doing. If God was good he would not allow this. The problem of hunger is a perennial crisis that is never far away and always demanding our attention. The cry of the hungry penetrates our hearts as it should and its very permanence is hard to answer. But when our aid is offered irrespective of God or to utterly replace the spiritual hunger that resides in human beings and in the case of hundreds of millions of them motivates everyday lives, we betray rather than benefit those we seek to serve. Religious cultures that are set aside and imposed secular values aimed at advancing the welfare of indigenous people create vacuums that are filled with ideologies of resentment and hostility. If the values proposed are uniquely those of the market and the moneylenders the shifting sands of these foundations quickly become all too evident. Jesus reply to Satan, “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” is not just a poetic and memorable phrase that trips off the tongue, recalling our childhood familiarity with the scriptures. It is a reminder that the supremacy of God is not an optional extra but an absolute.

Pope Benedict also suggests that it links into the ultimate plan of Jesus to use the form of bread as spiritual nourishment. Our Lord replicated the famous sign of the manna with which the Israelites were fed in the wilderness, in the two miracles where he feeds 5000 in Galilee (Mt 14: 13-21) and then 4000 in the non-Jewish region of the Decapolis(Mt 15:32-39). He did indeed feed the physical hunger of the people. But the miracles are connected with and preceded by the search for God. The people have not come to be fed but to hear Jesus. It is God who is asked to supply the bread and it is provided in the context of a gathering of people hungering for the word, who have in no way anticipated that they will also be fed materially. Ultimately we learn from the Gospel of John (Jn 6) that the miraculous feeding is a paradigm for the Holy Eucharist. In that we can understand and appreciate the saying “Man does not live on bread alone”. It is a warning against absolute reliance on earthly goals and superficial gains. The moral position which, disguised as concern and pity, makes material considerations alone the supreme motivation for the relief of suffering is insidious and unworthy of the discipleship to which the Christian is called. The total replacement of the providential supremacy of God with immediate and tangible resourcefulness, good though it may seem in superficial perception, is ultimately faithless. It is God alone on whom we must depend.

Part 2 will follow