Godfried Guffins & Jan Swerts, The Temptation of Christ (c. 1870), Sint-Joriskerk, Antwerp
In the Gospel today, Jesus begins his public ministry with a fight. Following his baptism in the Jordan, he is driven by the Spirit out into the desert to encounter the devil. At its heart, it is a spiritual struggle. We know from the other Gospels that the devil is trying to tempt Jesus to betray his mission, to interiorly falter in his willingness to dedicate himself completely to the will of the Father who has sent him. There also, however, material aspects to this contest. It takes place in the wilderness of Judea, where Jesus is alone, fasting, submitting himself to the elements, surrounded by wild beasts. Mark’s account draws our attention to how there is truly a battle being fought: between Jesus, the Son of God, filled with the Holy Spirit and all of the forces of darkness, earthly and otherwise, everything that represents chaos and disorder and violence. These spiritual powers converge upon Christ, and he bests them all.
Each year, as we begin Lent, we hear about this testing of Jesus – this period of struggle that he undergoes in the desert and from which he emerges victorious. But only in the Gospel of Mark do we hear what happens next: that having defeated the devil and resisted his temptations, Jesus goes to Galilee and begins proclaiming the Good News. It is as if Mark is suggesting that Jesus’s proclamation of the Gospel is a continuation of what he began in the desert – an extension of the battle against the forces of sin and darkness.
The Church Fathers saw this very clearly. All of Jesus’s public ministry – his preaching, his miracles, the encounters with particular people – all of it is a battle to win back creation, especially humanity, from the darkness that has enslaved us through sin and dysfunction. At each turn, Jesus encounters the devil and at each turn he beats him back, healing this person, forgiving that one, casting out a demon from that one, and strengthening the faith of another. Jesus is on a mission of liberation, one ultimately that is headed for Jerusalem, where the last great battle must be fought and won on the hill of Calvary.
If we look at all of Jesus’s ministry in that way, then his words today “Repent and believe in the Gospel” also take on a new meaning. They are not mere moralizing; Jesus is not just admonishing us to be a little better, a little holier. Rather, he is issuing a call to arms – he is inviting us to come and join him in the battle and share with him in the victory over darkness. Unfortunately, our world still affords us many reminders, too many, that evil is real; we know from our newscasts, and Facebook feeds, and our gossip around the water cooler and dinner table that sin and dysfunction did not disappear with Jesus. Evil still must be confronted and defeated, and the first place to engage with it is in our own hearts. Repentance therefore is part of the rhythm of our Christian life – while we have a claim on the final victory to come, the battle still continues.
With what then do we fight? Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. These weapons may not sound as fearsome as sword or steel, but the Christian tradition has long seen these penitential practices as the most effective ways of combating the forces of evil. They help sharpen our spiritual attention and heighten our moral awareness, and each of them contribute to making us more free. Prayer reminds us that it is our relationship with God that most truly defines who we are, not the circumstances or even the relationships of our day to day. Fasting reminds us that we are not slaves to our physical impulses and corporeal desires; we have a free will. Almsgiving and works of charity free us from being possessed by the things we own.
Often we tend to see Lent as something serious, and maybe a little gloomy, but really it should be a time that invigorates us and reawakens us our faith. Some five hundred years ago, Ignatius of Loyola encouraged the young men who wanted to join his new group, the Jesuits, to imagine themselves in the middle of a great plain. Assembled there are two great armies. Under the banner of Satan, are the proud, the self-serving, the self-reliant. Under the banner of Christ are the humble, the modest, those reliant upon God, the penitential.
It is a powerful meditation because it is so counter-intuitive. The side of Satan seems much stronger, and for that reason more inviting; the side of Christ seems weak and maybe even a bit pathetic. And yet we know that it is those under the banner of Christ that ultimately are victorious What Ignatius wants to show us is that often what attracts us, what seems to us most appealing, is precisely what can lead to our ultimate ruin. Eternal life comes rather through self-denial, through penance – through a recognition that we must constantly be purifying ourselves from the desire for the things of this world so that we can be more attuned to the deeper longing for what is eternal.
Friends, as we begin Lent again, our Lord reminds us that we have a fight on our hands, one for which brass knuckles will not be effective. God still desires to cleans our world of its sin and dysfunction, but rather than act on a grand scale through a purifying flood as in the days of Noah, he now acts at the individual level through the transformative power of his Holy Spirit. Lent affords us a chance not just to tweak one or two things in our moral life, but above all to remind ourselves on which side we are fighting. Jesus offers nothing less than emancipation from all that holds us back, so heed his call! Invite the Holy Spirit to do battle in your heart. Arm him with the weapons of penance and spiritual discipline. Take up your stand anew under the banner of your Savior, and begin to share again in the victory only he can give.