Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Into the Desert

Even when I know Lent is on the horizon (and with Mardi Gras decorations all over my office for a month, it's a hard reality to avoid), Ash Wednesday can catch me a bit by surprise. This year, a little more than usual (three days of migraine kind of distracted me from the liturgical rhythms this time
Jesus at prayer in the wilderness.
Illumination by Simon Bening, circa
1530. Courtesy of 
around). But being responsible now for our official Pauline reflections on ifollowlight, I did have to spend an unusual amount of pre-Lenten time meditating on Christ's forty days in the desert, so I have a little something to share today, headaches notwithstanding.

This year in most parishes you will hear the Gospel of Mark's summary of the temptations in the desert. Here is the whole of that Gospel text:
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."
If you are at a Mass where the candidates for Baptism are going through one of the final stages of the RCIA, you will probably hear the much more detailed Gospel of Matthew. This text (like the one in Luke's Gospel) spells out three rather specific temptations, usually beginning with the sneering goad, "If you are the Son of God..." and then starting off with the idea of turning the desert rocks into tasty loaves of bread--an idea that Jesus dismisses immediately with a quote from the book of Deuteronomy, "Man does not live on bread alone..."

After the three attempts, the devil seems to give up. Jesus wins. The end.

How can that be helpful for us who face daily struggles to follow the will of God when it is not always that hard to discern in the first place?

The clue is in the number of temptations Matthew and Luke present: three. In the Bible, a repetition in sets of three indicates intensity, a persistent, ongoing situation, taken to the very limits of possibility; it hints at a kind of crescendo. Jesus in Gethesemane prayed three times, "Not my will, but yours be done" (Mt 26:44). Peter will deny the Lord not once, not twice, but three times, underlining the vehemence of his denial (Mk 14:66-72). Paul, again, prayed three times to be delivered from his famously mysterious thorn in the flesh (2 Cor 12:7). Paul's "third heaven" (2 Cor 12:2) was as high as one could go in the Jewish mystical tradition.

So that first encounter in the desert was only the beginning of an incessant battle, one that lasted the rest of Jesus' life. He will tell his apostles, as the end draws near, "You are the ones who have stood by me in my temptations" (Lk 22:28).

How did he do it?

I found a hint of it in the very words Satan used to inaugurate his attack, "If you are the Son of God." That was a serious miscalculation on the part of the tempter. His attempt to pit Son against Father, to put God's fatherhood to the test, had worked very well with Adam and Eve in the Garden. The insinuation that God was not really on their side was all it took to induce Eve to reach for the forbidden fruit, and for Adam to take his share. But for Jesus, those same words were a reminder of the foundation of his existence: The unfathomable love of God is the entire background of Jesus' awareness. All the way to the Cross, he was relying on the Father, and his last words on this earth are for all of us an exhortation to trust God with our life. "Into your hands I commend my spirit."

The temptation in the desert gives this year's candidates for Baptism a key for living their new identity as children of God: live every moment in reference to the Father. For those of us who have been in the pews for quite a while, it is a reminder and a recall: your life is cherished; every hair of your head is counted. Receive this gift of faith every day to live in the peace of Christ.

That is what I want to take through Lent this year: the image of Christ on the Cross, completely entrusted to the Father he could no longer "sense" in his human spirit. Surely the tempter was still at hand with his mocking "if you are the Son of God..." It didn't matter. There was only the Father, the beginning, the source, the foundation, the assurance, the guarantee of Easter.

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