This event is important in the life of Jesus since each of the synoptic Gospels gives us an account of his temptations in the desert after his Baptism but prior to his ministry.
Why the 40 days given by all three evangelists? Jesus relived the experience of his ancestors who spent 40 years wandering in the desert. God's providence led the Israelites through the sea but it was into a wilderness. Jesus' Baptism was like the crossing of the Red Sea was for the Israelites. Then, like they, Jesus was "led by the Spirit" into the desert.
For the Israelites, the desert where they were tested and tried was not easy, but it was a formative period in their history. It was also a time when they experienced God's protection like at no other time.
Jesus too was tested in the desert. Jesus suffered the hardship without complaint and remained faithful to God, repulsing the tempter. In this way, Jesus, the Son of God and the son of Israel, fulfilled the destiny of Israel in a new way.
Everything was fine with Jesus up to this time and at his Baptism, God confirmed him in his mission. So why did he need to go into the desert? The wilderness or the desert is a difficult place to be. It is a place of testing the heart's faithfulness when difficulties arise and God seems absent. Desolation and emptiness lead to the temptation to lose trust in God. It was a time for Jesus to re-affirm his total commitment to his destiny.
For us, when everything is going well, it's so easy to be good. But difficulties are bound to arise and it is much harder to be faithful. Although our goal isn't to search for suffering, we know that it is then that our courage and strength are built up.
Spiritual writers often compare life to a journey where there are mountains and plateaus. Just as physically we become stronger when we climb mountains than when we walk a straight road, so spiritually, we grow on the climb, the difficult part. The plateaus are for resting between the arduous laps.
In times of struggle, we feel our weakness more than when everything is going well. The only recourse we have is to turn to God and we begin to trust. We become stronger and so are more ready to resist temptation.
Jesus' temptations are all ones to use his divine power and abandon his humanity in order to make his life easier. Changing stones into bread, throwing himself from a high peak without injury and attaining many possessions are beyond the power of human beings. Jesus refuses to give in to temptation. Instead he places his trust in God and his humanity into God's hands.
The temptations that Jesus endured are the kind we face daily. Aren't we all tempted to rely on our strength alone for our needs? Aren't we all tempted to blame God when things go badly? Aren't we all tempted to seek possessions that give us prestige as well as the good life? From Jesus' example, we learn to deal with these by trusting in God and rejecting temptation.
Reflecting on Jesus' temptations this Lent, we come to a realization that no matter how holy we may be, trials and temptations will come and that we must not be discouraged. Jesus' example clearly demonstrates this.
The lives of the saints also show that the holier they were, the more temptations came their way. Look at Mother Teresa who prayed so much and worked so hard for God, yet it seems she suffered from the worst temptations against faith towards the end of her life.
The opening words of the Epistle of James say it well: "Whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance. Let endurance come to its perfection so that you may be fully mature and lacking in nothing. Happy are you who hold out to the end through trial. Once you have been tested, you will receive the crown of life promised to those who love God" (1:1-4, 12).