In the Name...
After Sunday School, a young boy was asked by his parents what he had learned for Lent. Two things, he said. Give alms and pray fast. Pray, fast? Maybe I should give up jokes for Lent.
In fact, why don’t I just give up Lent altogether and go back to the Epiphany Season? After all, how did today’s Gospel text begin? “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.” And those exact words were the end of the Gospel text from six weeks ago when we began the Epiphany Season.
So, what’s going on here? Quite a lot, actually.
It may seem incongruous to talk about Epiphany on the First Sunday of Lent, but, it ties in quite well with our Gospel as presented by St. Mark. As we heard, we began with Jesus being baptized at the Jordan and receiving the Father's blessing and the next he's out in the wilderness, fasting and facing temptation. One minute he's the radiant Beloved Son, the next he's alone and hungry. Go directly to desert - Do not pass Go - do not collect 200 shekels.
Whatever are we to make of this? After all, we ask God "lead us not into temptation". And we often speak with affection about how we feel "led by the Spirit" as if the Spirit is a gentle breeze or fluffy cloud. Whatever are we to make of this rough language that the Spirit 'drove' Jesus, forced him to go where wild beasts prowled and howled and where the forces of evil tested his very being?
I suspect that a lot of us see the high points, the good times in life, as God-given, God-filled - moments like a promotion, a special family celebration, or a mountaintop encounter with the holy. And we see what we call the wilderness experiences, those times when we feel alone, surrounded by dangers and assaulted by temptation, as times that are bad, moments which seem God-forsaken. Today's gospel, however, reminds us that the wilderness can be used as a part of God's plan for my life just as the other, more pleasing experiences.
It's interesting, by the way, that Jesus first met temptation in a desert. Today, we tend to think of temptation as the result of material possessions or active surroundings. One aspect of giving up things for Lent is to diminish our temptations. We often seek solitude in quiet places to rest and recharge our spiritual batteries. And if we look at the locations of many retreat centres today, we see that they try to create an environment removed from the noise and distractions of population centres. No phones or TVs. A spiritually safe place.
Well, in the Early Church, many holy men and women went off to live in the desert, by themselves or in small communities, but, that wasn't so they could get away from it all - escape from all the nasty sin in the city. On the contrary. The desert was seen as the most spiritually dangerous place you could be, the place where evil spirits gathered and rested up before returning to attack people in towns. So, by going out into enemy territory, as it were, these Christian prayer warriors considered themselves an invasion force whose purpose was to give these spirits no place, no time, to rest. They weren't running from the conflict; they were charging into it headlong. Marching into hell for a heavenly cause. Like Jesus, they believed themselves driven by the Holy Spirit, driven to do battle. And the stories of these great Desert Fathers, as they are called, are stories of heroic struggles and deep insights.
In one of my favourites, one evening while meditating in his cell, a desert monk experienced a vision of Christ in all his glory and majesty, gold crown, Eucharistic robes, radiating bright light, and this splendiferous Christ in the vision said, "Bow down and worship me." The monk was about to when he paused and asked, "Show me the wounds." And, at that instant, the vision vanished. Satan, you see, is a deceiver, and he can imitate many things, but, he cannot imitate love, the love which took Jesus to the Cross.
In another story, an important person called upon a monk who spent his days in silent meditation. When asked to give the important person some words of spiritual direction, he replied, “If he is not directed by my silence, he will not be by my words.”
The wilderness then can be an opportunity. It is a place where we can grow and mature so that we can face the world with a new confidence, both in good times and in bad, and there do those things that God would have us do. Jesus matured in the wilderness. There he discovered that he was not really alone. God was with him, angels cared for him - and he survives, in fact, prospers.
How many times have we been there? After a special experience of God, a special blessing we get pumped up and are ready to take on the world; and then the difficulties begin, the time of testing comes.
But, the reality is that all of us, like Jesus, are tested whenever we try to serve God. Whenever we try to use our God-given gifts and powers, the Devil will try to derail our plans, deflate our expectations, and lead us into discouragement. And yet, for all that, the confrontation can be an opportunity for blessing if we let it be so.
If we let the angels minister to us, as they ministered to Jesus, and if we hold to the faith that we profess and exercise it, as he did, then we will know that, as St. Paul reminds us, those that be for us are more than those who be against us.
And we will experience Epiphany, even in the midst of Lent.
In the Name...