In the Desert with Satan and the Wild Beasts

יוסי אוד yossi aud Pikiwiki Israel, CC BY 2.5 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

The First Sunday of Lent

The first Sunday of Lent always sees us in the desert with Jesus, confronting temptation. This year we read Mark’s account, and as it is so brief, I’ll quote it in full:

The Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness and he remained there for forty days, and was tempted by Satan. He was with the wild beasts, and the angels looked after him.  

After John had been arrested, Jesus went into Galilee. There he proclaimed the Good News from God. ‘The time has come’ he said ‘and the kingdom of God is close at hand. Repent, and believe the Good News.’

Mark, 1. 12–15.

The first two sentences may be short but they are full of significance. The Greek verb used for the action of the Spirit is very strong. Jesus is, as it were, forced into the desert where his companions are Satan, the wild beasts and angels, none of them exactly comforting. Being looked after by an angel may sound better than being tempted by Satan or pursued by hungry leopards, but as soon as we think how angels are described in the Old Testament, our vision of charming little putti gives way to the awe-inspiring beings of fire and flame who surround the throne of God — not what one would call immediately reassuring.

The Temptations and the Public Ministry

Jesus in the desert is being exposed to the kind of radical insecurity few of us know in the West. He is to learn how to rely on God, and God alone. The temptations he faces, and which the other evangelists delight in detailing, are often used by preachers as an introduction to Lent. Indeed, I’ve used them like that myself, as many previous posts will attest. But Mark doesn’t allow us to linger in the desert or waste time speculating about Jesus’ experience. He turns our attention to John, the Forerunner, and the beginning of the Good News.

I don’t think that’s an accident. We are being asked to move in one swift bound from contemplation of the temptations Christ endured at the start of his public ministry to the purpose of that ministry. The temptations matter, of course, but not as much as the reason for Jesus’ life on earth taken as a whole. There is an urgency about Mark’s gospel that, more than anything else, convinces me of his belief in the importance of what he is saying. Our salvation is at stake; we cannot dawdle on the way. We must repent and believe, NOW.

Our Lenten Pilgrimage

Repentance has two aspects: being sorry for our sin, for (literally) missing the mark, and turning to the Lord — conversion, change. I think that turning to the Lord precedes being sorry for our sins because it is only in response to grace that we can even begin to see that we have sinned. Belief is similar in many ways. We have to be touched by God with the gift of faith before we can believe. We can’t argue ourselves into belief or will ourselves into belief. We have to wait for God to act, and most of us don’t like waiting for anyone or anything, not even God.

Lent can seem very long: forty days of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Forty days of trying to come closer to the Lord. It is easy to want to give up, have a little rest by the wayside; but Mark will have none of that. Our pilgrimage to Easter starts now. Let us pray that we may be attentive to the Lord and follow his lead. We may meet Satan and a few wild beasts on the way, but there are those formidable angels, too. Perhaps they are a comfort, after all.

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Spiritual Warfare for Christians

Christ Carrying the Cross
Christ carrying the Cross: attributed to Marco d’Oggiono, c. 1467–1524

There is a spiritual warfare that requires not a drop of blood to be shed, not a single angry word to be said, not one unkind thought to be thought. To put it in contemporary terms, you could say Lent is the Christian Jihad, when we oppose everything in our own lives that is hostile to God. The qualification is important. For the next few weeks we are principally concerned with following Jesus into the desert, allowing the searing light of truth into the hidden parts of our being, making us face up to the reality of who and what we are. We know it will be uncomfortable, but we were never promised a life of comfort when we became his disciples.

St Benedict tells his readers that the life of a monk should always have a Lenten quality, and there are many places in the Rule where he refers to fighting for the true King, Christ our Lord, the fraterna acies or battleline of the community and the spiritual combat of the desert in which solitaries engage. But he never presents this spiritual warfare as something dour or grim. On the contrary, it is immensely joyful — because it brings us closer to Christ. His chapter on Lent, RB 49, is one of the most lyrical in the Rule and reminds us that we are looking forward to Easter ‘with joy and spiritual longing’, that everything we do, even the restrictions we place on ourselves, the things we ‘give up’ for Lent, is done ‘freely, with the joy of the Holy Spirit’. In this, I think he is echoing the joy Jesus found in the desert, when he spent those precious forty days exploring the depth of his relationship with the Father. Yes, he was tested; yes, the temptation was real and urgent; but he was driven out into the desert by the Spirit — the Greek verb used is very strong, almost catapulted — and he was accompanied by angels, messengers of God. In other words, he was alone with the Alone.

For us, as disciples, our moments of being alone with the Alone can be very few and far between. In Lent we try to make more time for prayer, reduce the number of distractions (fasting) and seek to serve God in others (almsgiving). We know that we can sometimes be very self-regarding in all three, whereas what we intend is to forget ourselves. That really is the secret both of spiritual warfare such as I have described, and the joy that accompanies it. We need to stand aside, as it were, and let Christ be all in all — and that is so hard for us difficult, argumentative beings, who like to be in control all the time and find it virtually impossible to let go! The illustration at the top of this blog post may help change our perspective a little. It shows Christ carrying the Cross: the logical conclusion, if you like, of his forty days in the desert. The battle with Satan that began there reaches its climax on Good Friday, when Christ wins the victory for all time.

Christ has shed his blood for us, once and for all; so no more need be shed. He has borne every insult and angry word that has ever been uttered; so no more need be said. He has experienced all the contradictions of being human and transformed them so that now we can live the life of grace. Yes, Christ has triumphed and we live now with a vast opportunity before us. This Sunday is a good day for asking ourselves what we truly desire: God or something less, joy or endless sorrow?Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Of Mercury and Meteorites

Yesterday a meteorite injured hundreds in central Russia and Nasa scientists showed off a new map of Mercury remarkable for the complexity of the geological and chemical forms it reveals. Meanwhile, the media were concentrating on the passage of an asteroid 17,000 miles away from earth. There is an irony in that. We know so much about the universe we inhabit, and yet so little! The course of the asteroid was predicted, but the meteorite took everyone by surprise; and as for the Mercury map, its sheer beauty and the questions it poses will keep us occupied for a long time to come.

The parallel with the spiritual life is clear. Two thousand years of Christian experience have provided us with pointers on which we can rely, but always there is something more, something for which we are not prepared. If Lent is doing its work in us, we are being gradually opened up to the wonder and beauty of God in new and unexpected ways, and, contrary to what some popular books on prayer suggest, that can be a painful and contradictory experience. It can feel like being pulled apart — destroyed even — rather than growth.

Tomorrow’s Gospel invites us to go out into the desert with Christ and face down the temptations to pride and self-sufficiency from which we all suffer. Implicit in that invitation is the understanding that temptation will come to us again and again, in ever more seductive forms, but so too will grace. Our job is to be on the alert, ready to respond.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail


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