In the Synoptic Gospels, the public ministry of Jesus starts with his Baptism in the Holy Spirit in the river Jordan and, after an intervening period of 40 days of fasting in the desert, with the temptations by the Evil One in the desert, on the mountaintop and at the Temple.
And now Jesus was led by the Spirit away into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil (Mt. 4:1)
The period of 40 days in the desert is a time of real testing for Jesus, of which the 40 years the Israelites spent in the desert, between the Exodus from slavery in Egypt and the Entrance into freedom in the Promised Land, is the Old Testament type. It is also a time of purifying fasting for Jesus, the new lawgiver and the new prophet, of which the 40 days of fasting of Moses and Elijah is also a type. This in its turn, is, as it were, the type of our 40 days of lent between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday, a time too of "testing" and "fasting".
Just as at the beginning of, so also during, his whole public ministry, Jesus was under attack from the Evil One but he proved victorious through the power of the Holy Spirit. Peter himself tells us "how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him" (Acts 10:38). In like manner both our life and our ministry will be subject to the onslaught of the Evil One but we will be victorious only through the power of the Holy Spirit.
The Devil tempted Jesus to follow his attractive suggestions in order to fulfil his God-given mission of bringing salvation to mankind. The three-fold temptation of Christ is thus a warning to us of how we can be similarly tempted to use God's gifts in a way that are contrary to his plan, by giving in to the wiles of the Evil One, and an assurance of how we can nevertheless overcome these temptations by imitating the mind and stand of Jesus (Mt 4:1-11; Lk 4:1-1. These differ only in the order of the temptations).
Thus we are so easily tempted to lust after the enticing but transitory pleasures of this world, instead of hungering for and being nourished by the eternal life giving Word of God (cfr Ex 16:2; Deut 8:3; Mt 4:3-4; Lk 4:3-5). We are so easily tempted to crave for the glittering riches of this world, with even idolatrous and superstitious greed, instead of worshipping their Creator and being concerned for the needs of our brothers (cfr Ex 17:1; Deut 6:13; Mt 4:7-10; Lk 4:6-8). We are so easily tempted to even desire the more spectacular spiritual gifts and use them to take shortcuts and win instant success even in God's work, instead of taking up the Cross and following the Lord, whatever be the cost (cfr Ex 32, Deut 6:10; Mt 4:5-6; Lk 4:9-12).
The liturgical season of Lent is therefore meant to make us aware that the life and ministry of the Body, the Church, the new Israel, will be, like the life and ministry of the Head, Jesus, the new Adam, a real spiritual warfare. It is through the example of Christ and through his teachings that we can be further purified and strengthened through one more period of Lent, lent to us by God to enable us to turn away further from the World and the Prince of Darkness and turn closer to the kingdom and the Lord of Light, thus turning over a new life in Christ. In his person Jesus as head has rejected and overcome the temptations of his body the Church. For anyone in Christ becomes a new Creation, another Christ, living by the Word of God, adoring and serving Him alone and obeying his will perfectly.
That is why in the early Church, the Catechumens, who expressed a strong desire to be baptised and were finally, after much probing scrutiny, accepted and enrolled, went through a daily purification and preparation experience during the whole 40 days of Lent. It consisted of the Prayer of Exorcism from the powers of darkness that surrounded them and the Profession of Faith in the Word of God that was systematically explained to them from the Scriptures.
The double formula of the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday is itself an indicator of this twofold movement: the verse, "Remember, man, that you are dust and into dust you shall return" (from Gen 3:19, the beginning of the OT) states the problem, that on our own we are weak and will fall an easy prey to the Evil One, and the verse, "Repent and believe the Gospel" (Mk 1:15, the beginning of the NT) gives us the solution, that, as we rely on God's mercy, we will be released from sin; and that, as we trust in the Spirit's power, we will be renewed from within. This turning away from sin and turning towards the Lord will bring about a turning over in our lives - a change of heart, and consequently a change of lifestyle.
Let us then, with the Church, make our prayer, "Lord, protect us in our struggle against evil, as we sanctify this period of Lent by our self denial".