In the late 19th century a Russian painter, the noted portraitist, draughtsman, and teacher Ivan Kramskoi painted a haunting image of Jesus alone in the desert. It is a painting which expresses the internal struggle of the flesh versus the spirit. It portrays Jesus, in the early morning hours and the cold air of the dawn, with the sun rising over His back.
He is surrounded by small boulders and sits on a rock, hands in front of him, eyes filled with anguish and pain. This portrait of Christ in the desert is not one of victory; looking closely at His face you recognize the seriousness of the struggle and the irrefutable fact of Jesus’ humanity.
Observe Christ’s clenched hands, gaze deeply into His eyes, and you will see the artist’s portrayal of a Savior that is already at the beginning of His ministry aware of the viciousness of the tempter and the burden of our sins that will weigh upon Him.
Kramskoi’s painting is so powerful because it shows not the physical tearing that was to come in the scourging and crucifixion, but the sensual, psychological, and spiritual battles that would challenge the mission and authority of Jesus Christ.
Jesus had to confront, in that very first desert assault, whether or not He was going to be faithful to His mission; was He going to be faithful to the anointing that He received from the Father and the Spirit at His baptism?
The Gospel challenges us with the same questions: are we faithful to our Baptismal promises? Are we faithful to the Commandments? Are we faithful to the call that we received at our Confirmation to live and practice the truths that He taught us, not just when we feel like it, but everyday – even in the most difficult of circumstances?
As disciples of Christ we are on a daily basis constantly revolving around the axis of temptation and sin – faith and grace. We understand that temptation, in and of itself, is a test – it is not sin. It is only sin when we willfully place ourselves in its power, when we give into its power to overwhelm our body and soul, – a deadly power that obtains its animus and energy from the original tempter – Satan himself.
Christ lived blamelessly in the face of evil, but you say, I am not Christ, I am a weak man or woman, boy or girl. I say true, we all are, but by virtue of our faithful reception of the Sacraments we have the power of Christ’s grace within us.
Unlike Christ we don’t enter the wilderness of our own temptations alone. When we do face the anguish of our own sin, our own desolation in the face of Satan’s onslaughts, when we peer over the edge of the pit of sin – Christ’s witness tells us “Do not despair. Do not dwell in the pit. Do not accept the pit of sin as being permanent.” Jesus Christ tells us that He has instituted a Church that, with all its human sins and imperfections, still exists – in purity – to convey through its clergy the grace of God.
One of the first things that you notice about Christ in this portrait is that here, at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, the artist has Jesus’ hands clasped together. Yet, when you walk into a Catholic or Orthodox Church, and look at the crucifix or an icon of one, you see Jesus as He ends His ministry on the Cross, with His hands unclasped, and stretched out, stretched out for each one of us.
This Lenten season we need to reach out our hands to the One, who 2000 years ago, stretched out His hands for our Redemption – and who still reaches out for us today. Reach out to Him in prayer and the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and through Jesus, reach out to those around you who are suffering in the same way, and lead them back to the love of Christ.
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