This morning’s Gospel reading is Mark 1:12–15:
The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan. He was among wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him.
After John had been arrested, Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.”
When I was a kid, I used to spend much of my summer in the desert. My godparents and cousins lived in Lake Havasu, which was smaller and less well known than it is today. They had purchased the “London Bridge” and assembled it as a tourist attraction not long before we began to spend time out there. My cousins jokingly made it a big deal when they installed a traffic light, and it was a more serious big deal when it got large enough for a McDonald’s franchise.
It was a fun place to be in the summer for a kid, but not because it was chock-full of activity. It felt like the middle of nowhere, and it was long before Internet connectivity would make everyone permanently connected to everyone else. My cousin and I would be able to get the Dodger games off the radio station in Los Angeles at night, but only because of the “skip.” Until cable TV made its way out to those areas, you either had to have a C-band satellite dish or get used to very little choice on TV entertainment. We had to either hang out with friends and socialize in person, or we would have to find other ways of passing the time. One summer, singing along with the soundtrack to Grease was as close to “social media” as we’d get for a few decades.
As kids and young teens, we were not really inclined toward introspection, but being isolated from our normal lives did give us the opportunity to notice the difference when separated from our normal routines and possessions. I won’t pretend that it turned us into philosopher-poets, but looking back at it, the entire experience felt like a stripping away of connections and entanglements. It brought us back to who we were, in some small degree, and allowed us to have an unencumbered joy for a season. And at least for me, the desert environment added to that sense of peeling away.
That to me is Lent — a stripping away to get to the authentic child of God within us. We struggle with this season because of those connections and entanglements, and because as adults, we cannot simply escape the responsibilities of our lives. Most of us lack the wherewithal to go out to Lake Havasu for a month and contemplate our navels while hiking in the 120-degree heat. Nevertheless, we are called to do this, in part as repentance for our sins, but in larger part as a recognition that sin exists, and that it lives within us.
In today’s Gospel, Mark provides us with a very brief description of the temptations of Christ. The Gospel of Matthew gives us much more detail (Matthew 4:1-11, also Luke 4:1-13). Note well that Satan takes up the effort to tempt Jesus immediately after His baptism, when His status was made clear in both the spiritual and material worlds. The devil attempts to corrupt Jesus at the start of his ministry with three successive temptations. All three involve rejecting God in some way: the first by defying His material creation, the second by seeking immortality within it, and the third by avarice and material corruption.
There are many nuances to these temptations, which parallel the sins of Adam and of the Israelites at the Exodus. However, these also parallel most of our own sins. We seek to reorder creation to our own benefit; we deny the truth of our material bodies and neglect our spiritual selves and our debt to the Lord; and most perniciously, we seek power and advantage over others. Those are among the roots of sin, that which separates us from the Lord and our duty to Him and each other.
Our baptism gives us the grace to recognize these sins and repent for them. Peter write about this in his first epistle, our second reading today. Baptism is a cleansing of the spirit, not of the body, Peter instructs. “It is not a removal of dirt from the body but an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,” he writes.
Baptism transfigures us to recognize sin and to combat the spiritual attacks through which sin push us further from the Lord. It does not prevent us from falling into sin, and it does not mean we will always recognize sin when it tempts us. We still need to have the discipline to maintain an awareness of sin and our own culpability within it. That is why the season of Lent is a necessity — to prompt us to strip away some of the entanglements of our lives and to rid ourselves of the distractions we construct that prevent us from gaining that clear insight.
This is our time in the desert. We go there not to undergo special temptations, but to recognize all of the unending banalities of the temptations in our lives. We do not go out there alone, either; we go out together, less isolated than ever as we recognize our own brokenness in sin and open our hearts to our brothers and sisters who suffer similarly. And just as when Jesus went out to the desert to conquer temptation for us, the Lord sends his angels along, helping us when we stumble and soothing us when we finally allow ourselves to see the breadth and depth of our own sinfulness.
His love sees us through our season of Lent. And it His love that brings our authentic selves as His children to the forefront when we strip away the sin and temptation that threatens to bury us.
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here. For previous Green Room entries, click here.