With each new year, we have the opportunity to die to self and to become more fully committed to Our Lord.
Even as we continue to celebrate the miraculous birth of Our Lord, the days after Christmas and into the first days of the new year are the perfect time for rigorous self-examination to prepare for the spiritual battles of the coming year.
During the first week of the new year (later if you follow the Julian calendar) we celebrate the baptism of Our Lord in the Jordan River by St. John the Baptist, when Jesus is revealed to be the Son of God, the second person of the Holy Trinity, who has incarnated to save us from sin.
St. Cyril of Jerusalem calls Our Lord’s baptism in the Jordon “the beginning of the Gospel.” In the Jordan, he says, the Old Testament prophecy of “the mystery of the Divine Holy Trinity” is fulfilled and “the mission of Christ in the world and the path of salvation were shown” (The Prologue of Ohrid, Volume One, January 6).
The path of salvation, we are shown, is through the desert with Our Lord. Immediately after his baptism, Our Lord enters the desert to prepare for his ministry.
Through his experience in the desert, we learn how, with the grace of God, to stay on the path and to defeat the temptations that cause us to sin. To prepare for the spiritual battles of the new year, this is where our reflection and self-examination must begin.
Matthew 4:1-11 and Luke 4:1-13 give us a full version of Our Lord’s temptation in the desert, while Mark 1:12-13 gives us a summary.
Matthew writes that Our Lord was “led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (RSV). Once there, after forty days of fasting, just as we (in the East at least) have fasted during Advent and in coming weeks will fast during Great Lent, Our Lord is tempted first to turn stones into loaves of bread.
This is followed by the temptation to test the flesh and God by throwing himself down from the pinnacle of the temple.
Finally, the devil takes Our Lord to the top of a mountain and tempts him to reject God and to make the devil and earthly power and goods his gods.
Our Lord rebukes Satan and, Matthew writes, “the devil left him.” But, Luke tells us, the devil “departed from him until an opportune time,” a foreshadowing of Gethsemane.
The temptations the Lord experiences in the wilderness are three of the primary temptations we face throughout our lives. They are, Evagrius of Pontus tells us, the first line of temptations, the fundamental evil thoughts or demons of gluttony, avarice, and vainglory.
These three, he says, form the front line because they lead us into the hands of the other five: Fornication, anger, sadness, acedia, and pride (On Thoughts, in Evagrius of Pontus: The Greek Ascetic Corpus, trans. Robert E. Sinkewicz).
After reading and meditating on the Scripture passages that tell of Our Lord’s temptation, the next step is to concentrate on the various ways we, in particular, are tempted and how during the past year we gave in to or dismissed the temptations of gluttony, avarice, and vainglory. This should lead us to consider other temptations as well, such as anger or sadness, which emerge from them.
Our reflection must go beyond the surface. Gluttony concerns more than the food we eat and avarice more than the money we desire or hoard.
St. John Chrysostom tells us that we can have gluttonous eyes and gluttonous ears. Gluttony, Evagrius writes, leads to fornication, and fornication can be a form a gluttony.
So we must consider not just how we have sinned with the belly but with the eyes and the ears.
Avarice is often thought of as greed, but one can be greedy about more than money. With avarice, we place our needs above those of others, and this can take many different forms.
Vainglory, which basically can be defined as our seeking the glory of this world, or the approval of others rather than God, is at the heart of both of these vices.
So in examining ourselves, we must consider the ways we have sought to seek worldly glory and win the approval of others, and we must be rigorous if we are to have any success at this.
A person who takes on a lot of activities that place him in the center of events or which draw attention to himself, even if they are for the good of others and himself, often is one who needs and thrives on the approval of others at the expense of others and his prayer life. Yet such persons are often blind to their sin.
Vainglory leads to the sin of pride, the devil’s sin, or when we put ourselves in the position of God. With the assistance of anger and sadness, pride can lead to madness.
So we must always take a very close look at our moments of anger and sadness.
Spiritual combat is serious and unending work for most of us in this life. Preparing appropriately for the spiritual battles of the new year will help ensure victory. The Lord shows the way.