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God is too good for us. We have to go to great lengths to tear ourselves away from our own twisted loves in order to stand in his presence. That is the message of the First Sunday of Lent, Year B.
Catholics uniquely know this, because we enter the Church in baptism by promising to do just that and then we have the longest annual penitential season of any major religion — the more than 40 days of Lent that started Ash Wednesday and will end with us renewing our baptismal promises at Easter.
Jesus spending 40 days in the desert in Mark’s stark Gospel is the model for our interior life each Lent.
Mark’s Gospel reading this Sunday immediately follows the Gospel we heard at the Baptism of the Lord.
In January, we heard:
“On coming up out of the water he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit, like a dove, descending upon him. And a voice came from the heavens, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.’”
This Sunday we hear the very next verse:
“At once, the Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for 40 days, tempted by Satan.”
This is an image of each of us today. At our Baptism, we received the gift of the Holy Spirit and God saw us and was very pleased. But many sinful days later, the force of the Holy Spirit is no longer the refreshing dove that hovers over us in celebration; now it is a driving wind pushing us to grapple with, and overcome, temptation.
Gaudium et Spes, the Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, describes our situation this way:
“A monumental struggle against the powers of darkness pervades the whole history of man. The battle was joined from the very origins of the world and will continue until the last day, as the Lord has attested. Caught in this conflict, man is obliged to wrestle constantly if he is to cling to what is good, nor can he achieve his own integrity without great efforts and the help of God’s grace” (No. 37).
Mark describes the same thing in his succinct word picture of our Lenten model, Jesus, in the desert: “He was among wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him.”
Like Jesus, we live among wild beasts; only we find them in the disordered appetites of our own hearts. And we have to respond the same way. “All human activity, constantly imperiled by man’s pride and deranged self-love, must be purified and perfected by the power of Christ’s cross and resurrection,” says Gaudium et Spes, through “detachment and liberty of spirit.”
In other words, it takes serious fasting, prayer, and almsgiving to free us from our own concupiscence — but we have one big help on our side, the one prefigured in the story of the man who tamed and contained the wild beasts, Noah.
The readings give us a second analogy for our lives: the flood.
If every human heart is in a battle to the death with an enemy of God fighting to win us over, then the world is a place of destruction and chaos filled with souls who have succumbed. The First and Second Reading point to our shelter in the storm.
The First Reading last Tuesday told the beginning of the story of Noah, in which God said: “I will wipe out from the earth the men whom I have created, and not only the men, but also the beasts and the creeping things and the birds of the air, for I am sorry that I made them.”
The story then introduces Noah and his ark, which shelters sinners and wild animals, clean and unclean, through the storm. At the end of the flood, after Noah did all that was asked, we get this Sunday’s First Reading: “I will establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all bodily creatures be destroyed by the waters of a flood.”
St. Peter in Sunday’s Second Reading, says, “This prefigured baptism, which saves you now.”
So while Lent in our hearts is like a desert we enter to grapple in a cosmic battle with Satan — the storm we face outside our hearts is like the raging waters of a flood, through which the Church, the Bark of Peter, carries us safely to our homeland of heaven.
That transforms the picture. We are not alone in the desert; we are not abandoned in the flood.
Sunday’s Gospel ends the way our Lent should begin.
After the 40 days were over and after John the Baptist was arrested, says the Gospel, “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.’”
Jesus ends his penitential season by calling people to “repent” — to undergo a metanoia, radically changing their lives to be part of a new kingdom, with Christ’s priorities in place of the “deranged self-love” inspired by Satan. This is what we agree to in baptism.
In baptism we promise “to reject sin in order to live in the freedom of God’s children,” and the fasting of Lent stretches our will so that we can truly make hard choices freely.
In baptism we “promise to reject the glamour of evil, and refuse to be mastered by sin,” and Lent drives us to wrestle with and overcome temptation.
In baptism we “promise to reject Satan, father of sin and prince of darkness,” and Lent is meant to reset our priorities to match Christ’s kingdom instead of Satan’s principality.
Baptism onboarded us to the Church; Lent is our annual personal decision to stay on deck as the Holy Spirit fills our sails to drive us home.