I am thinking about hunger lately, and how to sate it. You could say I have that in common with both Eve and Jesus in the readings for this first Sunday in Lent. We’re hungry. In my case, I don’t even really mean metaphysically hungry. I mean I’m thinking about lunch. (I won’t speak for the two of them, who may have had a bit more on the mind, to be fair.) As a breastfeeding mother, I’m insatiable—at least as insatiable as my almost-nine-month-old. The science suggests that when nursing a child, a person expends about 500 extra calories a day, and that by other metrics the toll is even greater: my body dedicates more energy, for example, toward producing milk for my son than it does to keep my heart beating or my brain firing. Conservative estimates indicate that in a single year, I’ll spend 1,800 hours breastfeeding. That’s just shy of a forty-hour work week, sans any two-week vacation.
Needless to say, I’m exempt from any fasting this Lent. And thank God. A feast can barely keep me full.
In Genesis and the Gospel, the devil suggests some options to sate his interlocutors’ hungers. An apple, bread. Eve bites and, as we know, “undoing the transgression,” Christ declines.
A unique ruin was hidden in the otherwise plain prospects of fruit and loaf. In the story, Eve’s bite brought about hers—and ours too—but Christ understood the poison behind the promise of bread. This, again, I find relatable, though (again), not for especially spiritual reasons.
Both my children have severe food allergies; between them, we have to avoid cashew, pistachio, sesame, egg, milk, and peanut, and the specter of death lies hidden within any unknown loaves, any unknown foodstuffs at all.
Despite my regular hunger, eating—even keeping the pantry and fridge stocked—has not been particularly easy. It was only earlier this month we learned of the littler one’s new food restrictions. We’re navigating lifestyle changes that must, to ensure survival, require us to act as if survival is always under threat. Reading and re-reading ingredient labels; calling food manufacturers to find out how factory lines are (or are not) cleaned between various allergenic products; looking for replacement foods that will allow us to keep some staples intact for my older son. Even before Ash Wednesday, I’d say our lifestyle was rather Lenten. A kind of full-time fasting: hyper-vigilance when we’d like to rest, discipline when we’d like to indulge. And that’s okay; we’ll do anything it takes to avoid the unique ruin that lies hidden in otherwise plain prospects.
It’s really a shame to be so preoccupied by hunger when reflecting on today’s readings. But here we are. Still, we have some of the richest and most thoughtfully theologized verses in the canon to reflect on. We have the elegant foreshadowing in the psalm, we have the Fall, we have Paul’s articulation of salvation history’s poetic unfolding, and we have Christ’s temptation in the desert—which means we also have the base text for Dostoyevsky’s “Grand Inquisitor,” a holy text in its own right if you ask me.
In this Gospel reading, we witness Christ’s temptation immediately after his forty days of fasting. He is hungry, we are told straightforwardly. And his hunger makes him vulnerable. So, “The tempter approached and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become loaves of bread.’”
In Dostoyevsky’s story, the cleric suggests Christ makes a grave mistake by not agreeing to turn the stones to bread: the devil is right, says the Inquisitor—people are hungry. Feed us first and then we’ll be loyal. Feed us and we’ll give up our freedom, we’ll choose full bellies over freedom once and for all. I admit, I am tempted. I am often hungry and, perhaps even more often, I am tired of the work it takes to be satisfied. Maybe in this instance, finally, I do mean this both in the physical and the spiritual sense.
I cannot help but take in the scene with bated breath, knowing (and yet still hoping) Christ will not fall for the devil’s old trick. Knowing, and yet still hoping, this Sunday like the ones before, he will not reach for the bread that has been laced with death.