Briton Riviere, Christ in the Wilderness, c. 1898
In the Gospel we just heard, Jesus goes into the desert following his baptism, where he stays for forty days and forty nights. But did you notice how Jesus got there? The words used by the Evangelist Mark are very specific: “the Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert.” Only Mark uses this very dramatic language, and he does so for a purpose. Following his baptism, filled with the Holy Spirit, Jesus immediately is impelled to begin what he had come to do – to journey into the desert to confront the forces of spiritual darkness and thus begin his mission of conquering sin and death.
The season of Lent has always drawn its inspiration from these 40 days and 40 nights that Jesus spent in the desert. It is a time of preparation and prayer – but even more, it is a time of struggle, of confrontation with the forces of sin and chaos that are at work within us and among us. For ancient peoples, including the Jews, the desert was the home of the devil, a place of spiritual wilderness and lawlessness. And it is in the desert, as we hear, that Jesus is tempted by Satan – not tempted to give in to Satan, as we are – but nonetheless he encounters the Prince of Darkness in a real way. Perhaps more importantly, for us, though, Satan comes face to face with Jesus – and loses. The devil fails in his temptation. And he begins that long losing streak that ends at last with his final defeat – and Jesus’s final victory – in the Resurrection.
This past week, on Ash Wednesday, we began again this season of Lent, recognizing our own need for mercy and penance. And today, the Church sets out for us what this period 40 days must be like – a period of struggle, of real confrontation. To do so, the Church typically invites us to take up in an intense way three spiritual disciplines to help us do battle with the devil. I’d like to focus on each of these three disciplines for just a moment and then ask some questions related to them which all of us might use for reflection:
• The first spiritual discipline is prayer – the Church invites us to deepen our prayer life during Lent. This doesn’t necessarily mean just saying some extra prayers. An hour of mumbling Hail Mary’s mindlessly may be less valuable for us than 10 minutes of honest, heartfelt conversation with God. What does your prayer life consist of? What are you avoiding in your prayer? Who are you avoiding? Are you offering prayers daily for those you are closest to you – your spouse, your child, your friend, your boss, your coworker, your enemy? Are you remembering in prayer those who are suffering around the world right now, even to the point of dying, because of their Christian faith? Is Jesus calling you to pray with him in his Passion, perhaps through the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary or by attending our Friday evening Stations of the Cross? Have you thought about hearing the greatest prayer, the Mass, a little more often during Lent, maybe attending daily Mass once a week in addition to your Sunday obligation? How long has it been since you’ve heard that most consoling of prayers, the prayer of absolution, by which you are forgiven of your sins in the sacrament of reconciliation?
• The second spiritual discipline is fasting. Fasting is not just giving something up. If we think we’re really fasting just by giving up chocolate or soda for Lent, we’re missing the point. Fasting is about putting into their proper place the desires of our body, raising our eyes in a sense from our stomachs to our God. The Church says we’re required to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, but what other ways can you fast during Lent? Can you fast from sleep – not hitting the snooze button, or waking up 20 minutes earlier each morning to begin the day with prayer? How about fasting from the radio in the car, maybe to listen to a spiritual audiobook or just to allow a little silence in your life? Are you willing to fast from, or indeed to give up entirely, the impure sexual desires and actions that do not conform to who you are before God? What about fasting from other things – things like TV, or alcohol, or road rage, or gossip, or pessimism?
• The third spiritual discipline is giving alms. In its essential form, this is sharing our resources with the poor, who have a claim upon us, because Jesus himself said: “Whatever you do for the least of these, you do for me.” Remember that story about separating the sheep from the goats? What’s the criterion Jesus will use – whether we fed him when we saw him hungry, clothed him when he was naked, visited him when he was sick or in prison, welcomed him when he was a stranger. Jesus doesn’t say do these things only when we have extra, so how are we doing at this almsgiving? Are you tithing to this parish? Do you help support the outreach to the homeless and the ill in this city? Are you going to contribute 1% of your annual income to the CASA appeal, as our bishop has asked? Is God inviting you to give up something you would have spent on yourself, maybe in a frivolous way, and instead give that money to the poor? Are you sharing what you have in other ways – sharing your time with someone you needs you, sharing your joy with someone in sorrow, sharing your faith with someone who feels lost, sharing your patience with someone who annoys you? Can you reach out to someone you’ve held a grudge against to tell them you forgive them? Can you invite back to Church someone whom you know has stopped coming?That’s a lot of questions, a lot of suggestions for us, and one of course could keep going. Perhaps one or two hit home for you, as they have for me. If not, perhaps that itself says something about God is calling you to do this Lent – to examine your own conscience in regard to these areas.
My friends, these 40 days we have entered into are not always easy, but they are not meant to be. Embrace the disciplines of prayer and fasting and almsgiving as a way of not just giving something up for 40 days but as a way of being purified, of becoming holier, of eventually leaving the desert for the glory of Easter. Use this season to allow yourself to struggle, to really confront the darkness of sin that has gained ground in your life. But as you do so, don’t rely upon your own strength; rather allow yourself to be driven by the Spirit, guided by him, relying upon the power of Jesus, because only through him, and with him, and in him can we face the devil who tempts us, and be victorious.