“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 and on their hands they will bear you up so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.
Again the devil took Him to a very high mountain and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. and he said to Him, all these I will give you if you fall down and worship me.” Matthew 4:5-6,8-9 (NRSV)
The pinnacle of the temple was not enough. Having not been swayed by the majesty of a human made edifice, the devil leads Jesus to the top of the grandeur of God and promises Him the world. If the architecture of human thought and sweat could not sway Him, then the creation of his Father would. The devil though could give him only the kingdoms below. The peak was not his to give.
Somewhere in our Intro to Psychology classes, we heard the name Maslow. We were shown a chart in the shape of a triangle and told about the hierarchy of needs. At the peak was the realm of self-actualization where creativity, acceptance, and morality resided. We were also told about something called peak experience. It was during those times, when exposed to the beauty of art and music or the intensity of love, or the grandeur of nature that our lives would know intense joy and in a transient sort of way we would become a self actualized person.
It is at these times, however, we also know what it is to be at once truly powerful and utterly helpless.
Anyone who has been to the top of a truly great mountain and has been open to the experience knows this. The air grows thin, you lose the trees and surrounded by foreboding alpine tundra, you are left to stare out at the horizon before you and the majesty of the world below. You have at once conquered a great height and yet know how small you can be.
We are often taken to great heights. We listen to beautiful music, we fall in love, we hold our children, we have a personal triumph, we walk in forested landscape, we see truly great art. We know the vastness of joy, but we are also humbled by the experience. It is very easy to drown in the experience….to forget the giftedness of it and treat it as possession belonging underneath us and not on the horizon that lies ahead. We are at a great height, but we are also in a dangerous place.
The ways of the world and the kingdoms below….these were the tempter’s to give. But the beauty of the good earth, the love that dwells in human hearts, the solidarity of family and community and ultimately our salvation….these things were and are not his as surly as they are not ours save that we receive them from a good place.
It is Lent. We are told to sacrifice. But we are also told to take something up. Climb high, so high the air grows thin and you loose your sense of place and time. The tempter will be there to meet you offering to you the lowly things below and telling you that the truly beautiful is to be had as a possession rather than as grace.
But Jesus will be there too offering freely those good things, even to the giving of life itself, that open the horizon and are His to give. These things we are not permitted to posses, but we are permitted to hold even as He holds on to us in that foreboding and lovely place Lent asks us to ascend.
Photo by F. Lorente, Creative Commons 2009