Scripture Readings: Genesis 9: 8-15; First Letter of Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:12-15
Last Wednesday we began the season of Lent, a favorable or opportune time, inspired by Scriptural references that speak of returning to God as something completely desirable and positive. Lent is the time to review our lives, reflect upon our thoughts, words and deeds, and concentrate our efforts more fully on the things of God. Lent is a reminder of what life is all about: not health, wealth and beauty, but liberation from slavery to sin, which means passing through trials to arrive on “terra firma,” the heavenly Jerusalem, where we hope to enjoy God’s company forever.
I like to call this first Sunday of Lent “Christ in the Desert Sunday,” as the name of our Monastery is “Christ in the Desert.” Every year on this first Sunday of Lent we hear a Gospel account of Jesus’ forty-day desert experience, when Christ was tempted by the devil, but ultimately is victorious over the forces of evil that assailed him. This year we hear the account by the evangelist Saint Mark describing Christ’s forty days in the desert of Judea. If you’ve been there, you know it’s very barren, more so than our alpine desert in New Mexico. It’s very hot there too, even outside of summer, and can be very cold at night year round.
Christ must have felt those hardships in his intentional desert retreat, but was not to be swayed by them or by the devil’s desire to see Christ follow a path other than God’s. As the redeemer of the human race, Christ in the desert was not defeated, but strengthened to go forth with his mission to open the path of redemption for all peoples of every time and place.
Forty is a significant number throughout the Sacred Scriptures of our tradition. For example, the flood in Noah’s time lasted forty days. For forty years the Hebrews wandered in the desert before entering the Promised Land. Jonah the prophet preached for forty days to the Ninevites. At different times both Moses and Elijah spent forty days fasting and praying on the mountain.
In a great tradition, Jesus also fasted and prayed in the desert for forty days. Our Church to this day maintains the timeline of forty days of reflection, fasting, prayer and almsgiving, in preparation to celebrating the culmination of Lent, Holy Week at the end of the forty days, and then powerfully recounting and reliving the events of our redemption in Jesus Christ, called the Sacred Triduum, leading up to Easter Sunday.
In the desert experience he endured, Jesus teaches us that trials are not to defeat us, but to strengthen us. We all face trials, but what we do with them makes all the difference; we can become bitter or transfigured by our trials. As the desert and the number forty are important themes in our Catholic experience, those who intentionally live in deserted places, dedicating themselves to the Lord are privileged to be able to walk the Lenten path with the support of brothers and sisters. No matter where we live, the Church strengthens us in our efforts to grow in inner freedom, love, peace and holiness, dying to sin in order to belong more completely to God and partake of risen life in Jesus Christ.
To enter the desert is to recognize our fragility and fears. Only with the Holy Spirit can we be comforted and sustained in our efforts. As the Holy Spirit protected Christ in the desert, so we too count on the same kind of help. At the moment of his baptism, just prior to his sojourn in the desert, the Holy Spirit appeared in the form of a dove to accompany Christ in his work as Messiah.
In moments of our desert journey we too are assured of the presence of the same Holy Spirit and of final victory over death. This is promised us by the baptism we have received. Only our own choice of rejection of God’s help, by our free will, can forfeit the promise made to us by God.
Whatever crisis we endure can be a source of victory. From the ashes, new life buds forth. We hold this to be true by our baptismal covenant with the living God. Saint Peter speaks of this in the second reading today when he states emphatically, “You are now saved by a baptismal bath.”
The word of God we hear at every Eucharist needs to be for us a continual reminder of God’s loving initiative toward us as his people and as individuals. May this help us to know more and more the immense love of God for us and our call to return that love by a life of simple regard for God and neighbor.
May this Lenten journey 2021, which we have just begun, be a time of grace and growth. May Christ, teacher in the desert, be our guide throughout these days.
Abbot Christian Leisy, OSB