Religio Philologi: Lenten Tests

feature photo

Lent, for Christians who put so much as half their heart into penance, is a serious trial.  Vowing to give up sweets or liquor or movies or agreeing to abide by the older rules on fasting and abstinence, we expose ourselves to constant temptations to backslide.  It would be rude, would it not, to refuse to drink a Martini with a less observant friend who has something to celebrate?  I have always acted on that principle.  After all, I can always add on another day of abstinence after Easter.  That squares everything, does it not?  I think not, though this self-deceiving hypocrisy  may be better than nothing: the proverbial tribute vice pays to virtue.

Lapsed Christians and even some Protestants complain about the superstitious rigmarole of a traditional Lent, quoting Our Lord’s admonition not to be “like as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they appear unto men to fast.”  In the post-Christian age, this would be a very convenient point of view. Christians are exposed more and more to disapproval and ridicule, Lenten customs are becoming a social burden, but we ought not mistake cowardice for purity.

The context, as it is so often in the New Testament, is indispensable to any inclusive understanding of these teachings on prayer and fasting.  Jesus is telling his disciples not to imitate the hypocrites like the Pharisees, who observe the forms of the law but do not truly repent.  In the same passage, after all, we are told to pray in a closet without “vain repetitions,” but He prays several times in the presence of the disciples, and they, in the Acts of the Apostles, pray frequently together. In almost in the same breath as He warns against repetitions, He provides a prayer that Christians have been using interminably ever since. Ostentatious and self-serving prayer in public is one thing; prayer with the faithful quite another. In the same way, acts of obedience designed to encourage reflection and penitence should be distinguished from self-promoting displays of penance.

I am sometimes surprised by how capricious—and unimaginative–we are in deciding what to give up.  Every year we seem to give up the same things, just as every year we make the same New Year’s pledges.  “I am giving up alcohol” balances “I promise not to get drunk more than once a month.”  For several years I tried abstaining from alcohol and failed miserably.  Then I tried abstaining from distilled spirits, and although I cheated now and then, I have been more successful.  I have an Orthodox friend who returned rather late in life to the Faith, and, compounding the harsh rules for Orthodox Lent, he gives up all alcohol.  His wife has begged me to persuade him to give up this giving up—he becomes so surely and morose no one in the family can stand him.  This year I think I will get through without drinking a Martini or taking a belt of Bourbon, but I now agree with my friend’s wife:  Abstinence should not be making me a worse human being.  It is easy enough to be an SOB without giving up wine.

I know people who give up alcohol, when they are really addicted to their Blackberry or Iphone and their latop.  If you wish to make yourself stupid, better whiskey than wiki.  Whiskey may wreck your health and damage your brain, but it does not cause the spiritual and mental damage that is inflicted by the wired lifestyle.  The devil was inspired when he taught Bill Gates and Steve Jobs and Jimmy Wales to do his work for him.

There is something capricious—and slightly comical–about individual Christians deciding for themselves what to give up.  I do not know where it began.  It smacks a bit of the individualism that came in with the Reformation.  Luther approved of fasting, but he was so disgusted with what he saw as a corrupt papal monopoly in the business that he advised his followers to decide on the days and manner of their fasting.

Now, there is undoubtedly some spiritual value to be gained from accepting a personal responsibility for abstinence, but there are also some losses.  On a practical level, how do husband and wife get along, if each is to have his own schedule of fasting?  In this age of children’s liberation, each of our tyrannical sons and daughters would insist on setting his own rules.  To take the simplest example, when everyone used to expect to eat fish on Friday, housewives, fishmongers, and restaurants were prepared.  These days it is not always easy to get a Lenten mean in a restaurant.  My daughter, who works as manager in a little Italian joint, told me she had arranged a good Lenten menu for Ash Wednesday.  When a man came in with ashes on his forehead, she suggested fish and vegetarian dishes.  When he asked for a meatball sandwich, she must have looked disapproving, since he blurted out in some heat: “I’m a Lutheran!”

But beyond this practical justification, the traditions of fasting and abstinence were little customs that bound together the faithful in a community.  Even today, if someone eats a sparse lunch during Lent, I know he is a Catholic or Orthodox brother, and when I see someone with ashes on his forehead, I know he is one of us–whether Lutheran or Catholic or Anglican—someone who is willing to make a public profession of faith.

In subjecting ourselves to traditional Lenten rules and imposing our own obligations, we might seem to be tempting temptation.  If we merely tried to be decent in an everyday sense, perhaps we would not be running so many moral and spiritual risks.  After all, our Lord taught us to pray [Matthew 6:13], “Lead us not into temptation.”  What are we doing, with all these abstentions from minor pleasures if not rushing headlong into temptation?

The problem, as Humpty Dumpty might remind us, is with the English word temptation.  The Vulgate’s Latin seems similar, “Et ne nos inducas in tentationem,” but tentatio (or temptatio), from the verb tentare, to attempt or make a trial of, refers, actually, to the ordeal of being put to the test or even subjected to an attack.  Lewis and Short’s dictionary perversely adds the vulgate meaning of “temptation,” without saying what that is but apparently intending the OED’s first definition, “the action of tempting or being tempted, esp, to evil, enticement, allurement.”

On this interpretation—almost universal—Christ was telling us to pray  something like this:  “Father, you know how much I like candy or pretty women, so please do not let me walk by a candy store or a singles bar today.”  It seems somehow, well, trivial, especially coming from the Son of God.  By the way, doesn’t the English imperative seem rather a peremptory verbal mood in this context?  The Latin (and Greek) subjunctive, “may you not lead,” is a good deal more polite.

The conventional interpretation of temptation is given no support by the Greek word that is being translated, peirasmos (from the verb peirazein), which means in classical Greek, a trial or testing, and this meaning is kept in the Septuagint and in other passages of the New Testament.  In Sirah, peirasmos is used to refer to the trial or testing that Abraham successfully went through.

In plain Greek or simple Latin, what Our Lord appears to be asking is not to be put to the test.  What test does he have in mind?    The traditional Gospel lesson for the first Sunday in Lent is, not at all coincidentally, Matthew 4:1-11, the “temptation of Christ.”  Jesus was led by the spirit into a desert to be tempted by the devil or, in Latin, ut tentaretur a diabolo, which precisely translates the Greek peirsathenai hypo tou diabolou.  When the Devil makes his appearance he is called tentator/ ho peirazon, that is, the one who subjects things or persons to the test or trial.  Satan is not really tempting Jesus in the conventional English sense, “look, kid, here is enough candy to make you sick” or “look at all the glory of the world I can give you”—though, inevitably, that is one aspect to what is going on; he is putting him to the test.  Part of the test is what the Devil can give Him, but that is not the whole of it.  Jesus is being tested the way Satan tested himself by thinking to challenge the power and authority of God the Father.

Please understand that I am not offering an original interpretation.  Everyone, including the translators of the Authorized Version, knew the meaning of tentatio.  St. Thomas, for example,  begins his discussion of whether or not it was fitting that Christ be tempted with the definition of the verb  tentare (tempt): “Tentare enim est experimentum sumere,” that is,  “to tempt is to make an experiment [or testing]“.  The trouble came when the English word temptation began to drift into its current set of associations.  The OED lists the original meaning as Middle English and now archaic.  Thus early English translators were perfectly correct in using “temptation,” but the word has flown off in the wrong direction.

Pope Benedict, on March 1, summed up the Church’s traditional teaching with great lucidity: “Lui, che non ha peccato e non può peccare, si sottomette alla prova e perciò può compatire la nostra infermità (cfr Eb 4,15). Si lascia tentare da Satana, l’avversario, che fin dal principio si è opposto al disegno salvifico di Dio in favore degli uomini.”  That is, “He who has not sinned and cannot sin, submits himself to the testing and therefore can feel compassion for our infirmity.  He lets himself be tempted by Satan, the adversary, who from the beginning has opposed himself to the salvific design of God in man’s favor.”

The Temptation of Christ is prefigured in the Old Testament, first, by Adam’s failure to resist the Tempter and, second, by the trials of Job, who is tormented, with the Lord’s permission, by the Slanderer, the Diabolos.  Job, who “feared God and eschewed evil,” passed the test, which included loss of wealth, servants, children, and his own health, but his largely physical trials were as nothing in comparison to the trial that Christ willingly underwent.  He did not ask for angelic protection in the desert, and, when the end came, he did not ask to be rescued from the Crucifixion.

St. John Chrysostom [Homily XIII on Matthew] beautifully makes the comparison: “For the devil would not have assailed thee, unless he had seen thee brought to greater honor. Hence, for example, from the beginning, he attacked Adam, because he saw him in the enjoyment of great dignity. For this reason he arrayed himself against Job, because he saw him crowned and proclaimed by the God of all.”

St. Gregory the Great wrote his richest work of theology as a commentary on Job, the Magna Moralia, a work very appropriate for Lenten reflection.  Using Job as a mirror, Pope Gregory confronts the mysteries of human existence—the variability of fortune and the temptations it presents. “Though the judgments of God are hidden from us when things go badly for good people…and when they go well for bad people, they are even more darkly hidden when things go well for the good and badly for the bad.”  Why?  For one thing, the good except to be chastised in this world and rewarded in the next, and they view success with suspicion. “Holy men fear they are perhaps receiving the fruits of their labors here and now…”  That is why for them, “the world’s applause is more troubling than its contempt and the height of prosperity poses a greater challenge than the depths of need.”

But the problem is more complex than it may seem.  Some men accept the chastisement of suffering but still fear that it is not “the compassionate blow of discipline,” but rather “the just punishment of <divine> revenge.”  Try as we might we cannot grasp “the power of divine wrath” which may turn out to be grace just as what we think is grace may turn out to be wrath.  While some are correct by divine punishment, others are stirred to “the madness of resistance.”  While some are rescued from such madness by doing well, others are “so elated by prosperity that they are torn loose from all hope of conversion.”  And most surprisingly, he says the same ironies apply to virtue and vice.  “Vice drags all men down to the bottom, but some are restored more readily for the shame of having fallen so far.  Virtue always lifts us to the heavens, but sometimes men find virtue a source of pride, and the ladder of ascent becomes the cause of their fall.  Because the power of divine wrath is altogether mysterious, it is necessary in all things that we be fearful without ceasing.”

Thus prosperity may be our undoing our a spiritual safety net; misfortune may teach us wisdom or utterly destroy us.  The Tempter may use either as a means of seduction. If failure brings despair and suicide, he has won, and if a chance for success can make us imagine we can be as gods, so much the better.

In the desert, God the Son is undergoing, in a still more powerful way, the trial in which Satan convicted himself.   If Satan had been content to be #2 or, as Christians believe, #3, he would not have fallen.  But the suggestion occured to him that he might be equal with or superior to God, he experienced it as a desire, which he then acted on. What else is he offering to Jesus, but the opportunity to tempt God by jumping off the roof of the temple or by making himself the ruler of this world.  The suggestion is made, but without experiencing desire Christ rejects it, and shows us the way of resisting these diabolical “temptations.”  That indeed, according to the Fathers, is why Christ submited himself to the Devil’s test.

And this is what we pray to be spared, the “temptation” to say “my will be done, not yours,” to say, “do as I say and not as I do, thus demand forgiveness while rejecting it to others.”  The prospect of facing this test must be terrifying to all but the perfect saint or the most complacent of Pharisees and hypocrites.  As Chrysostom says, our enemy is forever at work and must be resisted:  “Or should he, offering glory and dominion, and an endless amount of wealth, enjoin thee to worship him, do thou stand again manfully. For neither did the devil deal so with the common Lord of us all only, but every day also he brings these his machinations to bear on each of His servants, not in mountains only and in wildernesses, nor by himself: but in cities likewise, in market-places, and in courts of justice, and by means of our own kindred, even men.”

Indeed, the Pharisees and Sadducees [In Matthew 22] both tried to face down Our Lord, quibbling away his call for repentance and his promise of eternal life.  The Pharisees form a plan to trap him in his speaking, and they ask him whether or not it is permitted to pay taxes to Caesar.  He begins his famous response with “Why do you put me to the test, hypocrites?” “Quid me tentatis, hypocritae” or “ti me peirazete, hypokritai? After letting the Sadducees have a go at Him, only to fail, the Pharisees return to the attack [22:36], one of them, a learned man in the law, asked Him, tentans/peirazon….
It is hard to believe that Christ can actually be tempted, in the English sense, by such pettifogging little proof-texters.  Indeed their little “temptations” arouse him to the peak of anger, provoking his vehement denunciation of the “scribes, Pharisees, and hypocrites, who keep the law only in externals, calling them “whited sepulchers.”  Here truly we can say of them that it is they who have been tested and failed.  Putting their confidence in the books of the Law and in their traditions, they live more like swine than men:  “Serpents, generation of vipers, how will you escape the judgment of Gehenna”?

In outwardly fasting and abstaining, we are not inviting the Devil to tempt us into failure.  On the contrary, we are subduing our desires and self-importance by subjecting ourselves—in oh how paltry a fashion!—to a little bit of what He endured, both at the hands of Satan and at the hands of the Jewish religious establishment. Few of us could endure any of Job’s physical sufferings without complaint.  What would we do, if faced with a full bore attack from the Enemy?  And if a Mr. Worldly Wise in our office or in our church suggests that next time it would be more discreet to put the ashes on our wrist, we can answer [Mark 8: 38], “Whosoever, therefore, shall be ashamed of me and of my words, in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him also shall the Son of man be ashamed, when he cometh in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

Warning: The writer is not a theologian, only a philologist who dabbles in moral philosophy.  Take everything he says, unless it has to do with the meaning of Latin or Greek, cum grano salis.  This is only a draft, which will be augmented with some notes and additional material, partly in response to comments and partly after further study of the Fathers.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.