The Path of Hunger
“Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished” (Matthew 4:1-2).
“Hunger…Most people are terrified of hunger. And so many have substituted [true fasting] for a [mere] change in dietary restrictions. Whereas hunger is the teacher…fasting, hunger, thirst…these teach us to turn to Him” (A priest of the Oriental Church).
Famished. It comes from the Greek word, πεινάω, stemming from an earlier word still, πένης. Penance, poverty, pining, all these share the same root. Our Lord was taken to the wilderness to be broken and emptied. He spent forty days in depravity, in order to become acquainted with the great, universal teacher: Hunger.
A severe drought and a plague of locusts covered the Land of Israel. It was so austere, there was little to nothing to eat. Prophet Joel described the situation in impassioned words:
“Hear this, you elders; listen, all who live in the land. Has anything like this ever happened in your days or in the days of your ancestors…What the locust swarm has left the great locusts have eaten; what the great locusts have left the young locusts have eaten; what the young locusts have left other locusts have eaten.”
This is a semitic way of saying: “When it rains, it pours.”
Droughts and famines are well known in the world’s history. The Dust Bowl swept across the American land. The bubonic plague ravaged Medieval Europe. The whole world was wiped away long before that by a colossal flood, sparing only a few men on an arc. The drought in Prophet Joel’s time was not unique to Israel. Yet his words cast a special light on the meaning of famines.
He continues, “Wake up, you drunkards, and weep!” “Mourn like a virgin in sackcloth.” “Despair, you farmers, wail, you vine growers.”
The prophets got away with saying things like this. Can you imagine if a priest preached this way? You better believe he would get an earful afterwards, if he still had a job. Of course, nobody liked these guys in their lifetimes. Nowadays, we have to put up with angry reviews on youtube. Back then, when they were not preaching, they were usually hiding in caves, avoiding mobs with pitchforks and torches.
“Wake up!” St. Joel shouted. “Declare a holy fast…and cry out to the Lord” (Joel 1:5-14).
Who is responsible for famines and plagues? Who instigated the great flood? Who covered Egypt with lice and flies? Who lead Israel into the drought? Somebody is responsible for it all, and the answer is not easy. It was the same person who lead Jesus Christ into the desert.
“Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Matthew 4:1-2).
God welcomed the plagues. God ushered Jesus into temptation. God walks us as well into all our trials.
What kind of God is this? He is a God that loves us. He knows us. He knows our flaws, and he knows we will only truly flourish when we have been purged.
“I will put [my people] into the fire, and refine them as one refines silver, and test them as gold is tested. They will call upon my name, and I will answer them. I will say, ‘They are my people’ and they will say, ‘The Lord is my God’” (Zechariah 13:9).
In the end, the elect in paradise will say to God: “You, O God, have tested us; you have tried us as silver is tried. You brought us into the net; you laid a crushing burden on our backs; you let men ride over our heads; we went through fire and through water; yet you have brought us out to a place of abundance” (Psalm 66:10-12).
Christ was led out into the wilderness to be tempted.
“He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread”’ (Matthew 4:2-3).
Jesus Christ could have turned the stones into bread. He could have made bread enough to end all poverty and hunger on earth. He did not. He taught us that something is more important than food. Indeed, he taught us to value a lack of food, to embrace hunger.
“Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, “He will command his angels concerning you’” (Matthew 4:5-7).
The devil tempted him with pride. “You don’t need to fast.” “Feel good about yourself.” “Pamper yourself.” It is easy to fall for this one. “Why push forward? Why strain yourself anymore? Why keep the fast? It doesn’t make any difference in your life. You are already better than your friends and neighbors. You deserve a break.” Jesus Christ ignored the empty flattery. He just kept on.
“Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour… ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me’” (Matthew 4:8-10).
He could have had it all. He could have had fame, power, and prosperity. Instead, he chose hunger.
“Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him” (Matthew 4:11).
Διηκόνουν αὐτῷ. The angels served him. They feasting him on a banquet. Our Lord walked down the path of hunger. He pierced the depths of hunger, and, on the other side, found the feast of paradise.
Matthew the poor, the renowned ascetic, preaches thus:
“To reach maturity under God’s hand, man has to undergo countless stages of purifying and discipline. God puts to death to bring back to life; he breaks to bind up, wounds to heal, smites to embrace, and banishes to restore to his bosom…He who enters into a covenant of prayer…has first to consign himself to ‘Chastisement Kindergarten,’ then to ‘Suffering Primary School,’ then to the ‘Higher Institute of Affliction’…it is impossible to share his glory without first sharing with him in his sufferings…Persist….he will be given you…He will reveal to you higher mysteries and other things which I cannot express in ink and paper…Celestial joy will then be your portion day and night.”
May God give us a blessed Lent.