Dear Sisters and Brothers,
The response between the first two readings for this First Sunday of Lent is a wonderful Lenten meditation for the start of our season: Your ways, O Lord, are love and truth to those who keep your covenant. In the first reading from Genesis, we hear the story of the Lord with Noah’s family after the flood. The waters have receded, and renewed life begins again. The Lord likewise renews his covenant with Noah and his family and vows to never again wipe the slate clean, so to speak.
Our second reading is not from St. Paul, but this week from the First Letter of St. Peter. In this passage, Peter reminds us that the suffering that Christ endured for our sins was so that he might lead us to God. He likens it to the flood in that just as the flood wiped away those who were sinful, that is, disobedient to God, Jesus’ suffering wipes away sin so that all might have the ability to remain faithful to God. In fact, Peter likens the waters of the mighty flood to the waters of baptism. Both destroyed sin. Both reestablish God’s relationship with his people: first through Noah and now through those who are baptized into Christ Jesus.
Because the power of sin has been destroyed through the sufferings that Jesus endured for us and his resurrection, we now have the power to resist sin whenever sin tries to corrupt us. And if sin is absent from our lives as faithful disciples, then the love and truth of God, which are his ways, does in fact live through all of those who follow Gods ways. It seems pretty simple, doesn’t it? Nonetheless we, being who we are, do have what sometimes seems such a natural ability to screw things up!!! And as a result, we sin ... sometimes small and sometimes big and sometimes bigger!
Because we have in the person of Jesus both Jesus - truly God and Jesus - truly man - we have not only our way to the Father but also the examples of what works best to achieve the relationship that we want to have with God, and more importantly, the relationship that God wants for us to have with him. That’s why we need to also consider the example that Jesus presents to us in this weekend’s gospel passage from St. Mark. Jesus, led by the Spirit - and that of course would the Holy Spirit who we refer to as the third person of the Blessed Trinity - ventures into the desert by himself for forty days; a prefigurement of our forty days of Lent.
This period of forty days that Jesus is entering is recounted in the very first chapter of Mark’s gospel which indicates for us that it was at the very start of his public ministry. The period for Jesus isn’t necessarily peaceful as we see. He’s tempted by Satan, but also as the gospel points out, he was among wild beasts. Nonetheless, angels ministered to him.
Now Jesus is among wild beasts. What exactly were the wild beasts that he was among? From a literal point of view, it would have been whatever scavengers were able to eek out a living in the Judean desert where Jesus spent those forty days. From a spiritual point of view, it was evil spirits/the devil/temptation to sin - all of those things which we have to face in our own trials. Since Jesus is truly human, he would have been subject to every temptation that we still face in our own lives.
St. Mark also tells us that angels ministered to him. What was that about? It would be easy to imagine that because Jesus is also truly God, angels were there to cater to his every whim. While it’s easy to imagine, it would also be wrong! The angels were there to watch over him in exactly the same way as our own guardian angels watch over us. The angels were not there to magically protect Jesus from temptation. That would have taken away from his humanity. And if that’s the situation, then why is his being in the desert an example for us?
The reason why Jesus’ time in the desert for forty days is important to us is that it shows us that Jesus as man, like all of us, needed to spend time with God in prayer to strengthen his spiritual resolve. It was important, and indeed necessary, for Jesus to maintain the closeness of his relationship with the Father and the Holy Spirit so that his humanity would remain one with them in the purity of truth and love which are hallmarks of the Persons of God. His time in the desert is a reflection of the response of our psalm, because by maintaining Gods way, through prayer and fasting, he was able to remain in the love and truth that identify those who are party to the covenant between God and his people.
Now if Jesus is truly man, and likewise truly God, how does the example of his forty-day desert experience relate to our own discipleship? A lot of the answer has to do with the fact that the time there was marked with events and happenings that are often likewise part of our own lives. Jesus was first of all tempted by the devil. Let’s be honest. We’re tempted by the devil all the time whether we are perfectly conscious of it or not. How? Simple! There isn’t one of us who is truly loving in our thought, words, action or works twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week every week of the year. It’s not possible! Those times when we are perhaps less than loving or are tempted to be less than loving are those “devil”/temptation moments that are akin to the temptations that Jesus faced during his forty day. But Jesus is able to resist temptation because he stays close, through his prayer life, to the other members of the Godhead! Likewise, if we, through our own prayer life stay close to God, then the grace to resist temptation will likewise be available to us, should be chose to us it.
I’d like to point out at this point that this forty days of Jesus is not the only time in the gospels that Jesus retreats from daily life to put himself into a posture of prayer. The gospels show us that particularly when Jesus has something “big” coming up, he retreats to spend time with God in prayer.
This period of Lent in which we now find ourselves is a gift that the Church gives to us every year to remind us that if Jesus needed to take time out of his own busy life to strengthen his relationship as a man to the God of Israel through acts of sacrifice, prayer and fasting, then how much more necessary it must be for us as disciples! Jesus, for us is the Master! We are the disciples! Could we possibly think that we might be more spiritually advanced than the Master? Trust me! That temptation would be a sin! We can never be more than Jesus, because aside from being like us in all things but sin, Jesus is also one in being with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Therefore, if the Master needs to offer sacrifice, prayer and fasting to maintain the strength of his relationship with God, then so must we!
For disciples, the notion of fasting is pretty much straight forward, according to the Lenten discipline of the Church. Prayer is also something that we should be pretty good with if we come to church on a regular basis. As for sacrifice … there are plenty of options. Chose whatever sacrifice you might want - giving something up for Lent / doing something special or extra for Lent / resolving to be kinder or more patient and tolerant - but something that will show to God your love, your gratitude for his goodness, and the praise and glory due his name. Devils will be warded off ... and Angels will minister to you. And most importantly, you’ll be walking in the in the model of the Master!