The Word Embodied
Not by bread alone.
How shall we deal with the awesome contingency of our lives? We so much want to make a difference, to leave our mark. Yet we know we disappear into the vast reaches of space and time. We die and go to ashes. Such is our creaturehood.
Ernest Becker wrote in The Denial of Death that the preeminent human temptation is to escape or repress the truth of our frail skin. We avoid the desert, the loneliness, the loss of familiar support, the grand stillness. If we go into the wilderness, we will be reminded of the great hunger. We will be dwarfed by the earth’s mighty movements.
Enter distraction. If we keep ourselves ceaselessly preoccupied, we might be spared the pain and the pained. We need not pay attention to the terrible precariousness of our condition. We need not embark on the quest for an answer to our absolute lack. Perhaps if we entertain ourselves to death, we may be able to divert our way through life.
A tempting tactic: turn the stone into bread. No more yearning for the fullness. We can have it at our beck and call. By the snap of our fingers we fill the hole at the bottom of our being.
Another option: power. If we could only control and dominate, then we need not fear the terrors of the night. And if that fails, we might devise some magic. The splendiferous event. Defy the laws of human gravity, the pull of earth. Scale the treacherous heights unharmed.
The temptations Jesus underwent were to escape from the mission of his humanity, to deny our dependent condition. Let him dodge the mortality he supposedly took upon himself. Let him be everything but human. He could take the world by storm, by the sheer force of impressiveness. After all, if he could turn stone to bread, what faith would we need? (He would, as a matter of record, change bread into his body, but only for eyes that see in the full risk of faith. Imagine the hosts of spellbound believers approaching the altar to receive a little homunculus body now formed out of bread: Shazzam! What an act!)
Why did he not, by command, grab all our empires by the neck, dwarfing Alexander and the Caesars? Our timid allegiance could be exacted, squeezed out of us. Why did he not dominate, grandiose earth king, our wobbly wills? Then he need never rely on the free gift of the human heart. He would just enchain it. He could recreate us in a new image: rigid robots, awestruck automatons. Imagine him, flying in stupendous spirals around our cathedrals. Surely he would be Time’s man of every year. The biggest newsmaker imaginable. Let him be a superman or Captain Marvel, not a person of flesh and blood. Not a human whose whole sustenance would be the word of the one who sent him.
Jesus entered not only the desert, but the hunger as well. He was unguarded in the wilds of time, powerless before the raging logic of unleashed appetite. He was so embarrassingly common and little, so like us in every way but our sin, our escapes, our lies, our refusal to be what God made us to be.
He resisted the seduction. And the evil spirit left, to await another opportunity. It would appear again when the love would become almost unbearable, the wounds of our humanity agonizing. Finally, when he walked with us into the desert of our godforsaken dying, he gave us not escape, but those few reliant words of passage, “Into your hands I commend my spirit.”
In some strange way, Christ utters the same commendation to us. He will not dazzle us. He will entrust his saving of us into our hands for free acceptance. As Dostoyevsky’s Grand inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov complained, this was Christ’s big mistake. We would rather have the easy bread and showy circuses. We would prefer the domination of rigid authority over the terror of our free “yes” to him.
It is easy not to like Jesus’ proposal for our salvation, since it requires us to enter with him yet more fully into our creaturehood. He offers no way out from our wounds. He only gives us passage through them. And, halting before the journey, we are again tempted by the inquisitor’s questions in the desert.
As in the Grand Inquisitor story, Jesus remains quiet in the face of the tyrant’s reprimand that the mission has been all wrong. Jesus does not silence the liar. He does not cast the fraud from his throne. He merely kisses the man’s cheek and goes back to the streets of history, searching out the prize for which he came: the free gift of a human heart, the commitment in faith, the acceptance of his passion, death, and resurrection.
No, neither bread nor magic will save us. It will be only, as Paul writes, by our entry into Christ’s own act of total trust and abandonment, believing in our hearts that therein we ourselves are raised from the dead and delivered.
Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.
John Kavanaugh, SJ
Father Kavanaugh was a professor of Philosophy at St. Louis University in St. Louis. He reached many people during his lifetime.
**From Saint Louis University