The sign of Three

by Sr Tamsin Mary Geach

At the beginning of Lent we are presented with Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness, in which Our Lord re-capitulated and overcame both the primaeval temptations of Adam and Eve, and the temptations faced by the people of Israel in the wilderness.  As St Gregory says. ‘The old enemy tempted the first man through his belly, when he persuaded him to eat of the forbidden fruit; through ambition when he said, You shall be as gods; through covetousness when he said, Knowing good and evil; for there is a covetousness not only of money, but of greatness, when a high estate above our measure is sought.’  In the desert the whole nation of Israel is tempted and overcome in the same manner – they crave the fleshpots of Egypt, they turn to false gods, and they mistrust the God Who has saved them.  However ‘By the same method in which he had overcome the first Adam, in that same was he overcome when he tempted the second Adam. He tempted through the belly when he said, Command that these stones become loaves; through ambition when he said, If you are the Son of God, cast yourself down from here; through covetousness of lofty condition in the words, All these things will I give you’ 

This three-fold temptation of the Lord continues throughout His earthly life, and has been resisted by Him even as a tiny infant – He Who could have been had every luxury, been born in a palace, worshipped as the True Messiah instead is born in absolute poverty, in a stable, as one soon to be driven into exile in a foreign land.  In His public ministry  the temptations come again and again – He hungers and thirsts, though He is able to make food out of nothing; the people wish to make Him King, and He evades them; the demons proclaim Him as the Holy One of God, and He silences them.

Again in the Garden of Gethsemane the theme is revisited:  Christ is in an agony, such that He sweats blood and, and prays that the Cup of suffering pass Him by.  He is abandoned and betrayed by His friends who should be with Him to strengthen and defend Him, and He is arrested by soldiers when He could summon legions of Angels to destroy them. Theophyllus comments that the devil ‘having tempted Him in the desert with pleasure… retires from Him until the crucifixion, when he was about to tempt Him with sorrow.’

Augustine comments on the three-fold prayer in Gethsemane that there is a relationship with the temptation of Adam and Eve and the trials Our Lord is about to face: ‘To the temptation of curiosity is opposed the fear of death; for as the one is a yearning for the knowledge of things, so the other is the fear of losing such knowledge. To the desire of honour or applause is opposed the dread of disgrace and insult. To the desire of pleasure is opposed the fear of pain.’

Jesus goes through three trials – The Jewish authorities condemn Him for blasphemy and Pilate on the ground of expediency and political advantage, Herod as a rival king.  Each legal entity inflicts their particular form of torture and humiliation upon Him – The roughing up by the Jewish soldiers, the mockery of His Kingship, and the judicial beating.  As Augustine has it: ‘That they did spit in his face, signifies those who reject His proffered grace. They likewise buffet Him who prefer their own honour to Him; and they smite Him on the face, who, blinded with unbelief, affirm that He is not yet come, disowning and rejecting His person.’

There is a three-fold denial by Peter, which corresponds to these levels of temptation – the seeking of the fire leading to the first denial; the second denial when confronted; the third with an oath are brought to a swift end by the crowing of the cock – upon which Pseudo-Jerome comments
‘Who is the cock, the harbinger of day, but the Holy Ghost? by whose voice in prophecy, and in the Apostles, we are roused from our threefold denial, to most bitter tears after our fall, for we have thought evil of God, spoken evil of our neighbours, and done evil to ourselves.’

This three-fold patterning continues in the Passion:  Our Lord on the Way is forced to carry the means of His own death, driven to such weakness that the soldiers get Him the unwilling assistance of a passer-by, and stripped of His garments.

On the Cross again the pattern repeats – He is offered wine mixed with myrrh, which modern commentators think was a kind of pain-killer, so He was rejecting any kind of physical comfort; the passers-by promise belief if He will only come down from the Cross, and He reaches the point of desolation which wrings from Him the cry ‘My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?’

In death He is given the sketchiest sort of preparation for the tomb; The tomb itself is a favour granted by the political leader who condemned Him and the religious leaders who refused to acknowledge Him publicly; and yet His power is still feared, and the tomb is under guard, in the wise foolishness and courageous cowardice of those who set a lock on a tomb and a guard over a man dead.

What does this mean for us?  It means that the temptations that assail us on a daily basis, to pleasure at the expense of our own dignity or that of others, to controlling others, and to pride in all its many-facetted manifestations, are part of the process that nailed Our Lord to the Cross – but they are also thereby healed and forgiven, things which need no longer tie us down.  If we fear the pain of denying our desires, of humiliation, of loss of control, we should know He has been there before us, and is with us to hold and sustain us in our weakest and lowest moments.  And if at the end of Lent we feel we have failed, that as vines we have produced only bitterness, we should remember that though He refused the wine and the myrrh, Our Lord accepted the vinegar.

And He lay during three days in the tomb, and on the third day He rose again.

To Praise, To Bless, To Preach.