Q: Today’s Gospel (the First Sunday of Lent) commemorates Jesus’ forty days of testing in the desert. What is the significance of this event?
A: Jesus decided to spend forty days of testing in the desert as preparation for his adult ministry. Forty days is the traditional number of spiritual testing (see the previous question “Why is Lent 40 days long?”). The reason he chose to begin his ministry with a time of testing is to (a) set an example for us, (b) reveal his identity as Son of God to the opposing supernatural forces, and (c) reveal the nature of his ministry as Messiah to us.
Here is how the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains the event:
538 The Gospels speak of a time of solitude for Jesus in the desert immediately after his baptism by John. Driven by the Spirit into the desert, Jesus remains there for forty days without eating; he lives among wild beasts, and angels minister to him [cf. Mk 1:12-13]. At the end of this time Satan tempts him three times, seeking to compromise his filial attitude toward God. Jesus rebuffs these attacks, which recapitulate the temptations of Adam in Paradise and of Israel in the desert, and the devil leaves him “until an opportune time” [Lk 4:13].
539 The evangelists indicate the salvific meaning of this mysterious event: Jesus is the new Adam who remained faithful just where the first Adam had given in to temptation. Jesus fulfils Israel’s vocation perfectly: in contrast to those who had once provoked God during forty years in the desert, Christ reveals himself as God’s Servant, totally obedient to the divine will. In this, Jesus is the devil’s conqueror: he “binds the strong man” to take back his plunder [cf. Ps 95:10; Mk 3:27]. Jesus’ victory over the tempter in the desert anticipates victory at the Passion, the supreme act of obedience of his filial love for the Father.
540 Jesus’ temptation reveals the way in which the Son of God is Messiah, contrary to the way Satan proposes to him and the way men wish to attribute to him [cf Mt 16:2 1-23]. This is why Christ vanquished the Tempter for us: “For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sinning” [Heb 4:15]. By the solemn forty days of Lent the Church unites herself each year to the mystery of Jesus in the desert.
566 The temptation in the desert shows Jesus, the humble Messiah, who triumphs over Satan by his total adherence to the plan of salvation willed by the Father.
One additional thing that should be known is that the biblical term for “tempting” is the same as the term for “testing.” Jesus was not tempted in the sense that we are — that is, having evil desires — but in the sense of being tested to see if it was possible to tempt him in the sense of giving him evil desires. He was not capable of receiving such desires because of his infinite holiness as Son of God.