The Imitation of Christ
First Sunday of Lent. Fr Dominic Ryan invites us to follow Christ into the wilderness.
At its most basic, Christian life is about imitating Christ, Christ as presented to us in the gospels. So given that today’s gospel recounts Christ going into the wilderness to be tempted, must we do the same also?
Not really. Unlike Christ we don’t need to go into a desert for that. Temptation abounds in our lives and we succumb to it quite often. But if we are not to seek out temptation ought we to ignore this passage entirely? Surely not. So how can we imitate Christ as this passage presents him to us?
Different times and seasons of the Church’s year emphasise different aspects of Christ’s life to us and Lent is no different. During that period the Church especially commends prayer, fasting and almsgiving to us in order to imitate the example of Christ in the wilderness. But how do they do that?
The first thing to note is that all the temptations Christ faces try to direct him away from his mission, to make him desire wrong things. The first, that he should use his power to service his own needs rather than the will of his Father. The second, that he should want to test his Father rather than trust in him; and the third that he should desire worship and glory for himself rather than his Father. And just as it is by rejecting those desires and remaining obedient to his Father that Christ avoids temptation, so also it is by desiring wrong things that we fall into temptation.
However, the corrective to wrong desires is prayer. When we pray we communicate with God and through that we are changed. Take petitionary prayer as an example. What are we trying to achieve through this kind of prayer? Because God is omniscient it cannot be that he is undecided what to do in a particular situation and our petition will tip the balance for him. God already knows what he will do in a given situation and knows it eternally. We cannot change God’s mind, tip it one way rather than another, or have any other such effect.
Still less can it be that there are areas of life to which God’s providence does not normally extend, yet upon receipt of a suitable petition God can be persuaded to intervene dramatically. God’s providence governs all creation: there are no areas to which it does not extend and whether God decides to intervene dramatically or not in creation is beside the point.
Rather, when we petition God we learn to want what God wants for human beings. God desires friendship with us. And in desiring friendship with us, he wills good for us, and that good is that we should come to share his life through adoption as his children. But coming to will for ourselves the good that God wants for us is not always easy. Our own sinfulness can inhibit that process and thus God teaches us both what is right for us to desire and the means through which we come to desire it.
But recognising what one ought to desire and consequently when one has failed to desire correctly leads inevitably to repentance, of which fasting is a particular expression. In our case the mind is turned to the things of God and satisfaction is offered for sin, though in the case of Christ it just turns his mind to the things of his Father.
So together prayer and fasting keep us focused on what we ought to desire but what about almsgiving? We do not see Christ giving alms in the temptation story. Nevertheless Christ’s victory in the wilderness is an anticipation of his victory on the cross. And given that almsgiving is fundamentally about giving to others what they need, then Christ’s death and resurrection can be understood as God’s gift to humanity of what they need to enjoy eternal life and as such a kind of almsgiving.
But if the victory the temptation narrative anticipates is a kind of almsgiving, then so also the temptation narrative since it teaches us how to imitate Christ in the wilderness, which after all is our focus in Lent.