First Sunday of Lent
February 22, 2015
I recall that way back in 1988, The Detroit Free Press committed the entire front page of the entertainment section of the Sunday paper to a movie which had just been released called “The Last Temptation of Christ.” It was the first that I had heard of the film directed by Martin Scorsese, and I was excited by the possibility that Hollywood had finally done something right. Within a few paragraphs, however, I made up my mind that I would not see the movie. Much of the article laid out the criticisms of the film by the Church, leaving me convinced that the movie was “condemned.”
Fast-forward about 10 years. I was taking a class called Christology (the study of Christ) in preparation for Ordination. I was shocked when the professor not only recommended, but mandated that the class view the movie. What I discovered was that the film was not the typical “life of Christ” movie that used the Gospel as its script. Instead, this film took what might be called artistic license, telling the story in a way that used different images and symbols in order to convey what the Sacred Texts first reported. For me, Jesus’ temptation in the desert was especially powerful.
True to the Scriptures, the film depicted Jesus, fresh from the waters of baptism, journeying out into the desert. He picked up a long branch and purposefully drew a circle in the sand and then sat down in its center and began His meditation. As the 40 days drew to a close, an enormous cobra slithered up to the edge of the circle, reared up so that it was eye level with Jesus, and, in an alluring and seductive female voice, began to tempt the Lord with suggestions of earthly pleasures. The loathsome snake hearkened back to Eve’s conversation with the serpent in the Garden. Unlike Adam and Eve, Jesus angrily dismissed the cobra.
Shortly thereafter, a majestic and powerful lion approached. In a strong, masculine, and markedly arrogant voice, the lion listed all of the things that made Jesus a force to reckon with. The lion offered a plan for Jesus to take control of the world. Jesus quickly sent the lion, a symbol of pride, off into the darkness, clearly preferring God’s plans for His time in this world.
Following the second temptation, a brilliant pillar of flame shot up from the desert floor. Jesus mistook this manifestation as an archangel. Reminiscent of the pillar of flame that guarded the camp of the Israelites during their time in the desert, the flame was warm and comforting. Jesus greeted what He thought to be a heavenly messenger, but soon realized that the message was not from God. The voice from the pillar of flame was calm and ethereal, and gently tried to persuade Jesus to put His Divine powers to purposes contrary to the will of God. Jesus extinguished the flame, but the voice was not silenced, and promised to return.
The three temptations, although not portrayed in the detail given by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, nevertheless conveyed the nature and intensity of Jesus’ struggles. The scene from the movie was memorable.
So, fast-forward several more years. Remembering the striking way in which the Lord’s Temptation was filmed in the Scorsese movie, I decided to use it in a Lenten program in the parish where I was serving. My first stop was at the local library, where I was told that the film was removed from circulation because of strong objections from fundamentalist Christians. My next stop was at the video store. There, the manager explained that each time he offered a copy in for rental, it “disappeared.” He had a sense that would continue to happen and did not re-order it. Simply put, some people “condemned the film” because it made Jesus too human for their sensitivities, while at the same time, others praised the movie as offering something the Gospels do not always clearly convey: a vivid picture of Jesus’ humanity.
This reflection is not meant to promote the film. Rather, it is using the varied reactions to the Hollywood production to demonstrate how some Christians focus solely on the truth that Jesus was fully Divine. Others appreciate that The Lord was also fully human, and as such, wrestled with the same temptations that all humankind face. In fact, it’s extremely important to image Jesus in both natures. When we fixate on either His Divinity or His humanity, at the expense of the other, we miss the fullness of His mission.
Think of it this way: Throughout his teachings and writings, St. Francis de Sales often stresses that when we are human, it is then we are more in touch with that within us that is Divine. In those instances where Jesus faced off against evil, and overpowered every kind of temptation, He gives us an example of what it means to be FULLY HUMAN; that is, the way we were before the first parents were misled by the serpent.
Lent is a time for us to strive for that experience…the experience of being FULLY HUMAN…human as Jesus was…human to the point that we can resist those things that tempt us…to be less than we were created to be…FULLY HUMAN.
And so…draw a circle in the sand and stand in the center of it for 40 days. Drive out the serpents that approach with alluring invitations. Tame the lions that are hungry to devour your good intentions. Extinguish the flames of passion. Walk only in the Light of Christ. Our time in the desert has begun. Use this Lent to experience what it means to be FULLY HUMAN…so that, someday, you will know what it is to be FULLY DIVINE.