Temptation of Christ

The Beauty of Self-Possession

Satan Tried to Tempt Jesus James Tissot, 1895

 

Here is an image worthy of Lenten reflection: James Tissot’s 19th century portrayal of Jesus’ Second Temptation. Hovering over the Jerusalem Temple, we see starkly contrasting figures ~ the bodiless tempter, with an anger-filled face; and the serenely embodied Jesus, whose focus is within.

If you are the Son of God…” Why would those words have any power over Jesus? Perhaps it’s because they echo something said earlier in the Gospel. For we hear essentially the same words at his Baptism. “Just as he came up from the water… a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the beloved…’” A voice from heaven declares that this man, born to a village carpenter, is in fact God’s own Son.

We need not have grown up in modern times to consider this claim improbable. Many of Jesus’ own contemporaries considered the statement far-fetched, and even blasphemous. Jesus, himself, may have wondered at this. He probably had had strong youthful premonitions, that God had marked him for a special vocation. But, it’s unlikely he would have imagined there was something unique about his personal being, rather than more simply a difference in the kind of activity to which he was being called. And so, as he came up from the Jordan waters and heard those now-familiar words, he may have wondered what was really being said.

Then he finds himself alone in the desert… It must have felt like “now or never!” A childhood and young adult life shaped by a genuine piety, and full of Spirit-prompted intuitions. And then, in the wilderness, all is tested. And not for the last time!

The voice in the wilderness probably said other things to him: “Hello, my friend. Yes, you recognize my voice. I come in peace. Indeed, I’m probably the only one who believes you and those strange words from the sky. So, you see, I’m on your side! Let’s suppose it’s all true. In fact, let’s prove it! If you’re the Son of God, you’ll change the world sooner than you think. Do yourself a favor ~ make these stones into bread-rolls. Then, you won’t be hungry and, soon, you’ll be very popular! Or, even better, as I lift you to the top of the Temple, see how great everything looks. Jump! Everyone loves a wonder-worker. Besides, if you are God’s beloved, what can go wrong?

Tissot’s image captures a self-possessed Jesus, and we can assume it’s a faithful portrayal of his character. A significant part of Jesus’ self-possession stems from the fact that he is not captive to others, and not captive to possessions. Self-possession is focussed within; possession by things and by other people happens when we are distracted by what is around us. And so, self-possession is an antidote to being possessed by our possessions.

Self-possession makes possible self-giving. This is why we distinguish self-possession from self-absorption. For self-possession and self-giving are natural and spiritual corollaries. In his vocation, and especially in his Passion and Death, Jesus exemplified self-giving.

 

This blog is based on my sermon for Lent 1, the text of which can be found by clicking here. The James Tissot image comes from the archive of his biblical artwork, which is physically maintained at, and digitally available from, the Brooklyn Museum. Observers may note what appears (by contemporary standards) to be a culturally insensitive rendering of both the Tempter and of Jesus. Taking this point into account (while also appreciating the artist’s effort to depict matters historically and contextually), we can still benefit from Tissot’s biblically faithful work.

Temptation, and Beauty

Art_Eric Armusik_Temptation-fixed-2015-2

 

At Jesus’ Baptism, his Father in heaven speaks to him in the hearing of others: “You are my son, the beloved; with you I am well-pleased.” Luke tells us that Jesus is at prayer in this moment, with his attention likely turned within. By contrast, in his temptation, the devil appears to him and speaks to him in his immediate presence, tempting him with things seen or imagined. Our Father in heaven speaks to him from above. But the one he calls ‘the father of lies’ speaks to him from his side, about the things of this world. It is in relation to this point that I find Eric Armusik’s perceptive painting of the Temptation of Christ so compelling.

Look at that sinister-looking hooded face, and that claw-like hand on Jesus’ shoulder. The tempter speaks in his ear, to turn his attention away from his mission. In the process, the tempter offers to Jesus what he might be tempted to desire. A dark brooding sky obscures the light from above, and accentuates the dark ground underfoot. Jesus looks resolute while yet affected by the experience of his temptation. Eric Armusik captures how Jesus is tempted in every way that we are, yet without sin.

We are likely, always, to hear this same voice in our own ears. Sometimes the voice speaks strongly and directly, and sometimes it is only a whisper. But the message is the same: ‘Look at this beautiful sight! Look at this wonderful thing. It could be yours! Yes, yours.’ And in that moment, we are likely to forget the words of the Psalmist, who reminds us how “the earth is the Lord’s for he made it; come, let us adore him!” In the moment of temptation, the Father’s voice from heaven seems less immediate than other things grabbing our attention. Instead, we give preference to the voice from the side, which says, “go ahead! It will be ok ~ after all, it’s ‘good’!” So, ‘when we see that the tree is good for food, and how it is a delight to our eyes, and that the tree is to be desired to make us wise, we take of its fruit and we eat; and we also give some to our families and friends, who are with us. And in that moment, we know we have sinned, for we experience our separation from our Father in heaven.

Whether we are considering the history-changing choice of our biblical ancestors, or whether we are thinking about our own choices, temptation has more than one reference point. The obvious one, is whether we choose the path toward sin ~ to accept the allure of appropriating some good or beautiful thing, but in a bad way, for our own ends. The other opportunity provided by temptation is the choice we might make for the good ~ to seek and follow God’s will, and live more fully into God’s ways for us. Temptation always has a benefit that we should never forget ~ whenever we are tempted, we can choose to live more nearly as we pray.

 

The Temptation of Christ, 2011, by Eric Armusik. The image is reproduced here with the artist’s permission. To see more of his fine paintings, click here. Also see the Temptation passage in Luke 4:1-13; Hebrews 4:15 (quoted above); and Genesis 3:6-7, which I have paraphrased. My reflections here are drawn from my homily for Lent 1, which explores the themes suggested by the Temptation of Jesus (click here).