1st Sunday of Lent
Feb. 22, 2015
Mark 1: 12-15
Iona College, New Rochelle, N.Y.
“The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for 40 days, tempted by Satan” (Mark 1: 12).
On the 1st Sunday of Lent, we always hear one of the gospel versions of Jesus’ 40 days in the Judean wilderness and his temptations, which follow his baptism by John. This Sunday also has its own proper Preface noting Jesus’ long fast and his victory over “the ancient serpent.”
Today in the “B” cycle of the lectionary we hear Mark’s sparse description—just 2 verses, lacking the interesting dramatic details of Matthew’s and Luke’s versions.
“The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert.” This is the Spirit that just came down upon him at the Jordan River. The Spirit seizes him and drives him to an intense experience of combat with evil: “tempted by Satan for 40 days.” We’d like to think that when we give ourselves to God all will be peaceful in our souls. Au contraire! The devil gets riled up, goes and finds 7 other spirits more evil, Jesus says in a parable, and tries to reclaim the soul that has cast him out (cf. Matt 12:45). We read in Sirach, “My son, when you come to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for trials” (2:1). So if you feel yourself beset by temptations of anger, avarice, envy, gluttony, laziness, lust, or pride, know that Jesus has been there, and he’s at your side now.
Implied in Mark’s 2 verses is that those 40 days are also a period of Jesus’ communion with his Father, signified by the action of the Spirit and the references to the desert, 40 days, and the presence of the angels (1:15).
The desert is a place of testing for God’s people, and in the testing they’re formed as a people. It took the Hebrews 40 years to complete their desert journey, to pass their testing and come to the Promised Land; they failed one temptation after another. Like the prophet Elijah—who spent 40 days in the desert on his way to Mt. Horeb and a renewal of his prophetic vocation—Jesus is so attuned to the Spirit’s lead that he doesn’t need years; 40 days are enuf for him to turn Satan away and gird himself for his own prophetic mission.
Unlike Matthew, Luke, and today’s preface of the Eucharistic Prayer, Mark says nothing about Jesus fasting for the 40 days. When he says “the angels ministered to him,” he may mean that they provided him with what he needed, just as God sent ravens to bring Elijah food when he was in a wilderness hideout and, subsequently, when he fled into the Sinai desert, an angel brought him food and water to sustain him on his 40-day journey. God is providing for those who put their trust totally in him—providing not extravagance or even comfort, but what’s necessary. We can also infer that Jesus is so united with his Father that the angels serve him as readily as they do the Father.
Mark adds the unique note that “he was among the wild beasts” (1:13). That’s a suggestive line—suggestive of the Garden of Eden, when our innocent ancestors dwelt harmoniously with every kind of animal; suggestive also of the messianic age foreseen by Isaiah when “the wolf shall be the guest of the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; the calf and the young lion shall browse together, with a little child to guide them” (11:6). Jesus is the one who will restore harmony to the universe by renouncing the serpent’s temptations, unlike our ancestors. In today’s deeply troubled world, so much in the thrall of hatred, violence, nationalism, racism, egoism, and many other -isms, Jesus is the key to restoration and redemption.
After his desert experience, Jesus is ready to begin his ministry. That starts on an ominous note: “After John had been arrested” (1:14). Mark is already warning us of what happens to prophets. Being filled with the Holy Spirit, doing battle with Satan and winning, placing one’s life in God’s hands—all that is no protection against evil people in the short run. Like Darth Vader and Voldemort, Satan has his allies, and they claim their temporary victories. As Jesus tells those who are arresting him in Gethsemane, “This is your hour, and the power of darkness” (Luke 22:53).
But Jesus sees beyond the short run. Daily communion with God during 40 days in the desert will do that for you. He goes right into the territory of Herod, tetrarch of Galilee, who had arrested John, and starts to preach: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand” (1:14-15).
“The time of fulfillment” means that Satan’s time is up and God’s on the verge of reclaiming humanity. God’s entering history more forcefully than he has until now, more forcefully than at the Exodus, in the preaching of the prophets, or in the people’s liberation from Babylon. Jesus doesn’t say it, but we know it: the kingdom is personified in him. He’s about to make the kingdom evident in his preaching, his miracles, his offer of redemption, and his rising from the dead.
His offer of redemption: that’s the ticket to the kingdom, to the restoration of Eden and our healthy relationship with God and all of creation. “Repent and believe in the gospel” (1:15). Repent of your evildoing—and your evil thinking and evil desiring, as Jesus will spell out in his preaching, for out of the heart come “unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly” (Mark 7:21-22). A little refection on our own experience will confirm Jesus’ teaching.
Repentance also means turning from omission to action where omission or failure to act is evil. In the Confiteor we confess also “what I have failed to do.” We’re familiar with Jesus’ parable of the last judgment (Matt 25:31-46), wherein the just are welcomed into the kingdom because they’ve fed, clothed, nursed, and visited the needy; and those who’ve ignored Christ’s brothers and sisters are condemned.
In fact, this is the theme of Pope Francis’s message for Lent, in which he implores all of us to turn away from our “selfish attitude of indifference” that leaves the world suffering in so many ways; to go out of ourselves and “be engaged in the life of the greater society … especially with the poor and those who are far away”—which may refer not so much to those who are geographically distant as to those who are alienated and marginalized in some way.
“Believe in the gospel,” believe in the Good News, means believe that God really is close to you, really does welcome your repentance, really does forgive you, really does desire your presence in his family; and then to act like you believe all that! Which is to say again, repent: alter your behavior to be in tune with the Gospel.
And that’s what Lent’s all about—starting again in a desert of personal repentance, prayer, sizing up our relationship with God, and again embracing Jesus Christ, who is the Good News from God, so that, in the words of today’s Preface, we might 1st “celebrate worthily the Paschal Mystery”—that’s a double entendre alluding to both Easter and the Eucharist—and then “pass over at last to the eternal paschal feast.”