Lent and the First Temptation of Christ

COMMENTARY: The Scriptures and Art

‘Satan Watching the Sleep of Christ,’ by Joseph Noel Paton (1821–1901), shows Jesus asleep while the devil plots.
‘Satan Watching the Sleep of Christ,’ by Joseph Noel Paton (1821–1901), shows Jesus asleep while the devil plots. (photo: Public domain)

The Gospel of the First Sunday of Lent always deals with Jesus’ temptation in the desert, but Mark’s account is relatively sparse (a mere two verses) and devoid of details about the temptations. 

It does, however, add one unique detail (“He was with the wild animals”) and mentions another (“angels attended him”) that Matthew (4:11) qualifies (that the angels attended him after the devil had finished his temptations). 

We’ll return to them, but, first, let’s select a pictorial depiction of this biblical account. 

Because Mark’s account of Jesus’ temptations is so spare, it posed a challenge about what work of art to select for this reflection because most painters who depicted the event also illustrate some, if not all three, of Jesus’ temptations. 

That’s why I turned to 19th-century Scottish painter and illustrator, Joseph Noel Paton

Paton (1821-1901) spent most of his life in Scotland, but for a brief stint at the Royal Academy in London. He was approached to join the “Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood” — an artistic movement that saw itself in some ways returning to medieval trends (before Raphael) in painting, but with their own focuses on nature and color — but he turned them down, although it’s noted he often painted in their style. He was especially interested in religious subjects and the romantic stuff of Scottish and Celtic myth and legend.

Paton’s Satan Watching the Sleep of Christ is one of the few temptation paintings that does not include the content of the temptations. It appears to be dawn in a rocky desert setting, just before the temptations. It includes the two essential protagonists: the tempter and the tempted. Jesus sleeps. The devil plots. 

Christ’s head is surrounded by a halo, while Satan’s is encircled by a crown of fire: opposites. Jesus sleeps peacefully, while the devil’s face vacillates between a smirk, a plot and a puzzlement. 

Matthew’s temptation of Christ (4:1-11) — unlike Mark’s — contains dueling biblical passages, as the devil warps Scripture to make his point and Jesus employs it to correct his faulty exegesis. This painting also in some ways alludes to Scripture.

Jesus sleeps peacefully. The Gospels tell us he “was hungry” from fasting, but we should not forget that, because food is energy, Jesus is also tired. But his facial expression is one of calm, because “I lie down in peace and sleep comes at once, for you Lord make me dwell in safety” (Psalm 4:8). Jesus knows that “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High” can call God his refuge (Psalm 91:1, a Psalm Satan elsewhere quotes when tempting Jesus — see Matthew 4:6; Luke 4:10). 

People have to sleep, and the French poet Charles Péguy wrote a paean to sleep as God’s gift to people called The Surrender of Sleep. At the same time, Scripture also exhorts us to “be sober and awake, for your opponent, the devil, prowls like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). Paton’s Satan is licking his chops at the true Lion of Judah.

There is a theological tradition that holds that the devil was always puzzled about Jesus, suspecting but in the end not totally certain who he was. (That tradition seems to collide with the Gospel three weeks ago, when the demon in the possessed man in the Capernaum synagogue announces, “I know who you are!” (Mark 1:24). 

Remember, however, that the temptation chronologically precedes Jesus’ public ministry in all the Gospels. God had been demonstrating his “disordered” love of this hybrid creature, part spirit, part flesh, called man, but the idea that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14) is in some sense still so revolting to Satan that he might have doubted God would actually do it. Yet, unlike the devil, who tempts man with what is his own essential fault — “You will be like gods” (Genesis 3:4) — Jesus “did not deem equality with God something to be grasped at” (Philippians 2:6). 

The devil will make that same strategic error in his temptations. It is not wrong to want to eat when you are hungry or to trust in God when you are in danger. It is wrong to substitute my will for God’s, to demand a miracle to satiate hunger freely chosen or to expose one’s self recklessly to danger because “God will take care of me.” 

The devil wanted at all costs to make himself God’s equal. That Jesus, who has already emptied himself (Philippians 2:6-11), might not be tempted by that goal was something that, for Satan, just “did not compute.”

If Satan still wonders who Jesus is, the temptations should resolve any doubts: The devil’s temptation batting record makes Ty Cobb look like a rookie. That the devil departs with his batting record tarnished should resolve any doubts the other way, but persons are often inclined to believe (or not believe) what they want, regardless of the evidence. In any event, Paton’s picture puts us at the moment before “batter up!”

Jesus features the only living colors in this picture. The barren desert rocks and Satan share the same brown-gray hues, colors of death, not life. The sky and distant mountains (one Jewish tradition puts the site of the temptation near Mount Quarantania, Jabal al-Quruntul) are a grayish-blue. 

One might say that, apart from Jesus’ true blue cloak and red robe (naked Satan wears a faded counterpart), we have a scene dominated by shades of gray — blue-gray, brown-gray, but gray, not unlike the way the tempter often likes to pervert God’s morality.

Morning is about to break, “like the first morning” (to borrow from Cat Stevens), because in some sense Jesus, the New Adam, is back at that first morning, except this time he will restore by obedience what was lost by disobedience (Romans 5:19). 

At Jesus’ right hand lie rocks that, from the other Gospels, we know Satan will tempt him to turn into breakfast. Satan is ready to hit him with his best shot, but this High Priest “is tempted in every way that we are, yet did not sin” (Hebrews 4:15). One day, he’ll not change rocks into bread but bread into himself, not to feed himself but to nourish others.

At the beginning, I noted that Mark’s mention that Jesus was in the desert with “the wild animals” is unique to him and that he also mentions the ministration of angels. One would expect wild animals (and not necessarily the friendly kind) in a desert. 

I cherish an insight from my Christology teacher, Father Joseph Szewczyk, who many years ago suggested that what Mark might have been getting at is the unity of creation. 

Man’s relation to the animal world, over which he was to have dominion but not abuse, was disrupted by sin. 

In the Messianic age, the “lion and the lamb” should lie down together (Isaiah 11:6). The Messianic Age is here: The animal world, man (for Christ is “true God and true man”), the spiritual world (angels), God (for Christ is “true God and true man”) are altogether. 

In one of Paton’s early studies of the temptation of Christ, his dramatis personae grow to three: Jesus in the center, the devil around him, and animals on the ground. 

The Gospel for the First Sunday of Lent ends with the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry and his first words as recorded by Mark: “Repent and believe in the Gospel!” This is one of the formulae used for the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday. It is also the proper follow-up of the temptations of Christ: The sinless Jesus calls us to address the impediment standing in the way of our relationship with God. 

The “advocate who always pleads our cause” is ready, but, since love cannot be forced, he waits for our repentance. His call today is not just fitting for the start of Lent; it’s the hallmark of the Christian life.