by Br Julian McDonald cfc
The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan.
Mark 1, 12-15
“The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert” is a very strong statement. However, we are mistaken if we equate “drove” with “forced”. After all, Jesus was a thirty-year-old man, steeped in his Jewish faith, with a deal of experience behind him. He was well able to listen to his own intuitions and the promptings of God’s Spirit, and then make his own decisions. He was fully human, making his decisions the way we make ours. To prepare himself for the mission he had decided to pursue, he saw the need for an extended period of solitude, reflection and prayer. In response to the promptings of God’s Spirit in his heart, he set off into the desert. In Mark’s account, this decision followed immediately after his baptism by John, during which he experienced a sense of approval and affirmation from God, described graphically as a voice from heaven: “You are my Son, chosen and marked by my love, pride of my life” (Mark 1, 11). To come to appreciate the full significance of that would, of itself, require time for reflection.
Yet, like every other human being, Jesus had to work through the urges to look for short-cuts and to satisfy his desires for comfort, popularity and approval. Mark describes these metaphorically, depicting Jesus as being surrounded by wild beasts and being tempted by Satan. But they are no different from the urges and desires we all experience in the ebb and flow of our lives, when we want to replace kindness, forgiveness and personal inconvenience with self-serving, retribution and soft living. We know the values of God’s kingdom, but feel drawn to adopt attitudes and behaviours that prevent us from being our true selves. Jesus was on the verge of embarking on his mission to the world, of bringing a message of hope, healing and new life to people who were downtrodden and alienated. Yet he was tempted to have second thoughts, to question whether the dream he had for our world was worth the effort.
Lent basically means “spring”. The word is derived from Old English “lencten”, which, in turn evolved into Middle English “lenten”. The liturgical season of Lent began 4 days ago with Ash Wednesday and the smearing of ashes on our forehead – a reminder of the fragility of our lives and our eventual return to the earth from which we are made. The rest of Lent is an invitation to embark on “turning over” our lives, reflecting on and listening to how God’s Spirit is prompting us to spring-clean our living, to sow the seeds of something new. This fits with what is happening in the astronomical world, with the earth turning towards the sun and the agricultural world, as farmers and gardeners begin turning the soil in preparation for Spring planting. All this, of course, makes proper sense only in the northern hemisphere. In the popular mind in Ireland, the feast of St Brigid (February 1st) signals that Spring is approaching, while the Vernal (Spring) Equinox, when the sun shines directly over the equator and the lengths of day and night are approximately equal, will occur on March 20th, 32 days into Lent. And to cap it all off, we note that the Hebrew word for repentance basically means “turning”.
By venturing into the desert, Jesus turned aside from the euphoria of the affirmation associated with his baptism, and took time to consider his mission and the responsibilities he would have to take on in order to embrace it with integrity.
Lent provides an invitation and an opportunity for each of us to reflect on our mission as followers of Jesus, to decide on what we might need to embrace and from what to turn aside if we, too, are to live with integrity. This is not quite as simple as it sounds, for we don’t have to look too far to recognise that our lives are filled with all kinds of competing priorities. That does not mean that any or all of them are bad. But some of them can pull us in directions that are less than life-giving. You and I know who we are and who the Gospel calls us to be. Anything that drags us away from who we are and who we are called to be can be classified as temptation. In his wilderness experience, Jesus was tempted to move away from who he was and who God was calling him to be. Surely we can’t expect that our experience will be any different from his.
The bottom line of all this is conversion of heart. We all face the constant challenge of being true to the one we claim to follow and to his Gospel. Lent is an invitation to give serious and intensive attention to conversion of heart, to changing in our lives what we know needs to be changed. In this context, we may well ask ourselves what we make of the metaphor in today’s gospel where Jesus is depicted as being surrounded by “wild beasts”. As we launch into Lent, one of the occupational hazards for us is the nagging thought: “Why bother? The people with whom I live and work and recreate aren’t really interested in improving themselves. So why should I be the odd one out?” This, of course, is built on the low opinions we form about other people. We really don’t know what’s going on in their minds and hearts. Yet, we can convince ourselves that, like Jesus, we are surrounded by “wild beasts”. The world out there is a jungle, and if we’re not careful we can be bitten, pulled apart, infected or even devoured. And we certainly don’t notice too many angels looking after us. So, from the start, we can slip into thinking that there’s no point in improving ourselves if we’re going to be swallowed up in the long run.
I suggest there are two challenges for us if we find ourselves thinking like this. The first is to ask ourselves why we want to make our conversion of heart dependent upon what others are doing about improving themselves. Secondly, we might do something about changing our inclination to regard others as obstacles in the way of our own efforts at personal conversion. The temptation to compare ourselves with others might be an appropriate launching point for us as we begin this season of Lent. Today’s first and second readings make reference to the cleansing waters of the great flood of Noah’s time and the waters of baptism in the Christian era. Peter reminds us that baptism “is not the washing off of bodily dirt”. Rather, it initiates us into the life-long process of our relating with ourselves, with those around us and with God, in the person of Jesus. Lent is a time when we take practical steps to better those relationships.