Each year on the first Sunday of Lent we are invited to contemplate Jesus in the desert, where he goes after he has been baptized by John the Baptist, and his identity and mission validated by the heavenly voice and the Spirit hovering over him. As Jesus spent forty days in the desert, and as the people of Israel had spent forty years in the desert after Sinai and before their arrival in Canaan, so we are to follow the example of Jesus during these forty days, praying, fasting, and performing acts of charity, sharing all that we have received.
It is fair though to ask how we are to learn from Jesus’s time in the desert. This year we hear Mark 1, to which we return for the 7th time since the beginning of Advent:
"And at once the Spirit drove him out into the wilderness, and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tested by Satan, and he was with the wild animals, and angels cared for him. (Mark 1.12-13)
As always, Mark says so little and so much, but if we pay attention to this passage in detail, we can learn much from it.
The first point is that Jesus didn’t simply choose to go on a retreat, take few days away by himself after his baptism, to prepare for his coming ministry. This sudden flight to the desert was not even his own choice. Perhaps he had planned instead to go home, as did all the others baptized by John. But he was driven — expelled, thrown — into the desert by the Spirit which had come down upon him at the Jordan. We would do well to pray for the same grace, not to plan our own Lent, but to let the Spirit push us into the uncharted territory of the forty days before us. Breath deep, let go, go.
Mark does not tell us a lot about what happened in the desert, but the few details he gives us can help us greatly. First, he was tested, tempted, by Satan. This too happened to him, not of his own choosing. Satan – the tempter, the devil – is a living reality for Jesus and for Mark, who refers to him and Jesus’ contest with him four more times in the Gospel. For example, Satan tramples the Word that falls upon people who are shallow and easily dissuaded (4.15); Peter, of all people, tries to persuade Jesus to settle for a glorious and happy mission (8.33) Satan is ever on the lookout to stifle the word of God, to get people to misinterpret who Jesus is and ultimately to confuse Jesus himself. Unclean spirits too abound in Mark's richly populated universe: the spiritual world is real.
But what was the test, the temptation? We are used to pondering the three temptations dramatically enacted by Matthew and Luke – make bread from stones; tempt God by jumping off the peak of the temple; worship me, says Satan, and the whole world will be yours. But Mark gives no such story, but we can infer this by attending to the final part of today’s Gospel, what Jesus says when he comes out of the desert:
"After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come, the kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (1.14-15)
The kingdom of God: here and now — not on an ever-receding horizon, at the end of time, nor in some other, better heavenly place. Jesus realizes that he is not even like John, who came to prophesy a kingdom and a messiah who will come gloriously but later on. The Spirit drove out Jesus into the desert to enable him to see with stark clarity that the time had come — here, now! In the desert, dismissing Satan’s temptations, Jesus took hold of his own identity.
This too is a lesson for our Lent. But this scenario is so very grand that we may rightly back away: “Nothing like that for me this Lent! I am no messiah! I just want to be a better person!” But cannot the Spirit drive us off into the wilderness too? Perhaps this year and right now, I am called to some new moment, some turning point in my vocation and life’s journey. God may want something from you this year, that God has not asked before. The point of Lent — pulling back, dwelling for a time in a lonely place – is to open ourselves to the Spirit of God by exposing Satan, uncovering the devilish tricks that make us water down our vocations, opt for safe paths, trying to be good enough but not radically good, ready for the coming of the kingdom not now but later on: the dulling temptations that make good people spiritually dull people. But in 2021 we cannot afford dullness, we need heralds and prophets of God's kingdom right now, amid pandemic, injustice, poverty and the host of other ailments afflicting our world.
None of us can really say more specifically what God wants of us, his beloved children. But my guess is that hints are coming all the time. Lent is about slowing down and stripping bare the space around us, that we might hear the whispers God sends our way, moments of light, touches of consolation that surprise us on an ordinary day.
Mark gives us just two other clues that fill out the scene in the most wonderful ways. First, Mark says that Jesus was “with the wild animals.” It is a subject of great debate as to why Mark says this; Matthew and Luke do not. We know there are wild animals in the desert — so what? Some scholars say the beasts are a threat to Jesus; others, that he tames them and they come to trust him. This passage from Isaiah came to my mind:
"See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not see it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland. The wild animals honor me, the jackals and the owls, because I provide water in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland, to give drink to my people, my chosen, the people I formed for myself that they may proclaim my praise. (43.19-21)
The Spirit surrounds Jesus, and Satan assaults him, but he does not yield. The animals in their simplicity sense who Jesus is, and they come to him and stay with him, giving him a kind of flesh and blood solidarity amid all the spiritual turmoil. Perhaps for us too, the quiet of Lent may give us this unexpected resource, closeness to the many smaller living things around us: house plants, sturdy trees that survive the winter, brave crocuses pushing up through the snow; spiders on the windows, ants on the porch, the mouse that scurries through the kitchen, your faithful dog or your cat, the squirrels and rabbits, Canadian geese and the wild turkeys — all sent to us, to be near us in these days of Lent.
Finally, there is a simple closing to the scene:
"And angels cared for him. (1.13)
And what does this mean? Certainly, Mark believed not only in the Spirit and in Satan, and not only in the myriad impure spirits that torment people throughout his Gospel, but also the angels, those messengers from God who come and care for us, comfort us when we are in the desert, tried and on trial. Angels: spiritual messengers straight from God, but also angels in disguise, friends and family, the surprising people who help us to hear God’s call and stick with it, here and now, just by a gentle touch and a kind word.
Let us then pray that our Lent this year has a bit of Mark to it: driven by the Spirit — alone for a time in lonely places — staring down Satan — amid all manner of living beings, touched by angels. Let us pray that when Easter 2021 arrives, we find ways to say in our own words, "The time has come, the kingdom of God has come near: here and now."
Moreover: Today’s Gospel has also played a part in a fascinating interfaith venture that took place in San Francisco in 1908. There is a painting of Jesus that is famous in Hindu and interreligious circles: Jesus deep in meditation. It was painted in 1908 by Mrs. Theodosia Oliver. She seems to have become a disciple of Swami Gunatitanda, one of the first Hindu swamis of the Ramakrishna Vedanta Society in the USA, even as she also remained a Catholic. For the swami and his new center, she painted Jesus meditating in a yoga pose. And when she gave the painting its title, “Jesus Christ in His Yoga Position,” she adds part of today’s reading, “He was there in the wilderness and was with the wild beasts.” Jesus at prayer in the desert: an unexpected bridge among religious people everywhere!
(An earlier, oral version of this homily is part of this weekend's parish Mass, here.)