Friday morning, when I clicked on my computer at home, I was stunned, like a lot of people, to see the images and video from Japan.
Within hours after it happened, almost instantaneously, hundreds if not thousands of pictures and videos had been loaded onto the Internet, many from cell phone cameras, capturing this disaster as it was happening. It has brought the whole world into this experience in an astonishing way – with an urgency and an intimacy, I think, that rivaled what we remember from 9/11. We have all found ourselves somehow connected to this catastrophe.
Earlier in the week, ironically, the Smithsonian released some pictures that also connected us to another catastrophe: several previously unseen photographs following the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. And they looked like they could have been taken yesterday – because, incredibly, they were in color, using a special technique and camera. It’s a shock to see because, as one historian explained: “We only know the world of the past in black and white.”
But that’s not the way it was lived. I think that relates, as well, to this morning’s gospel. The life of Christ was more than just words on a page, more than black and white. Here we see the savior of the world in living color.
He was God. And he was a man.
He was one of us.
In a few weeks, we will hear again of how he suffered and struggled and bled to death on the cross. But here, we get another glimpse of his humanity, when we see him experience – as all of us do – temptation.
As St. Paul reminded us, Christ was a man like us in all things but sin – a figure of flesh and blood, of joy and pain, of appetites and longings. And this gospel makes that abundantly clear.
But it also assures us of something we so easily forget. God’s entry into history was total. His decision to take on human flesh was just that – a decision, a choice. And Matthew’s account of the temptations in the desert shows us what that choice entailed – and where God chose to dwell.
He didn’t choose the self-satisfied, or the fulfilled, or the powerful, or the secure.
He identified, instead, with those who have nothing.
Look at the temptations he faced: for food, for protection, for power. He rejected them all.
When Jesus was in the desert, preparing for his public ministry, he chose to stay hungry, to fast – and so expressed solidarity with all those who are starving, or thirsting. He would know intimately the desires of all who don’t have enough to eat, or who go to bed hungry.
When Jesus was in the desert, he chose to go unprotected – and so expressed kinship with all those who feel vulnerable or insecure, weak or defenseless. He would know what it is like to feel helpless, and homeless — to risk falling and have no one to catch you, no safety net to save you.
And when Jesus was in the desert, he chose to be powerless. In doing that, he expressed sympathy for all who have no voice, no power, no control. The God who made everything would know what it was like to have nothing. The One who is so vast that He is everywhere would experience what it is like to be small, and fragile, and profoundly human. He would even take that one step further at the Last Supper: the Lord of all would humble himself to be as small as a piece of bread.
The temptations that Christ faced tell us how very human he was – and in that humanity, we not only see ourselves, but we see even more deeply the profound generosity of God. We see how much God loves us. He loves us enough to experience everything that we are, everything that we struggle against – and He did it willingly, as an enduring and complete act of love.
It is a foretaste of what He will do for us on Calvary.
And it serves to teach us just how real and how immediate the incarnation was. Like history, it didn’t happen in black and white. It wasn’t just words on a page. It was in living color.
As we begin Lent, we join ourselves with Christ’s sacrifice – fasting and giving up simple comforts — to express our own humility and unworthiness, and to share the struggles of a suffering world. This weekend, that includes, in particular, the suffering of the people of Japan – the thousands who in their own way are facing their own desert.
In that bleak landscape, they know hunger. They know uncertainty, and worry about poison in the air. They know what it means to be powerless, wondering if the earth could shift at any moment, feeling as if there is no one to catch them if they fall.
This day, our prayers and hearts are joined to theirs. May the Lord of the desert — our God who knows human suffering first hand — protect them and uplift them, console them and strengthen them.
And may He open our hearts to give all that we can in their moment of need.