22nd February. First Sunday of Lent
1st Reading: Genesis 9:8-15
Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.”
God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.
2nd Reading: First Letter of Peter 3:18-22
For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you — not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.
Gospel: Mark 1:12-15
And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the desert. He was in the desert forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
Children Of The Desert
Some years ago on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land with a group of others to follow in the footsteps of Christ. We visited Bethlehem, Nazareth and Jerusalem; climbed the Mount of the Beatitudes and swam in the Sea of Galilee and even in the Dead Sea (not a pleasant experience!). We walked from Jerusalem to Jericho, looked into Jacob’s Well, stood on the place in Cana where Jesus changed the water into wine and even knelt at the place where he was crucified. Everywhere we went, we took our gospel with us and read the appropriate passage. It was a moving experience all the way. But the strongest impression I have retained is that of the desert where Christ spent forty days before starting his public life. During our pilgrimage, we spent a day and a night in the desert.
It is not surprising that the three great world religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, were all born in the desert. It was through the desert that Moses led the Israelites from slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land. It was from that desert that John the Baptist came to herald the Messiah and soon after Jesus followed to proclaim himself Messiah. After my visit there, I came to realise the significance of the desert. The desert is a purgatory man must pass through to reach paradise. What is impressive about the desert is its sheer aridness. There is no vegetation, no bird life and, apart from the odd tiny lizard, almost no animals.
The silence is almost total. In that bleak landscape, nothing comes between man and his God. One either discovers God or succumbs to despair. It is no wonder that those Bedouins who ply the salt trade following their caravans across the desert are deeply religious. No life thrives here except the inner life. It is not surprising that it was the Desert Fathers who created that great institution dedicated to fostering the inner life, Western monasticism. It has so profoundly marked Christianity that we are all now, in a sense, children of the desert.
Living now as many of us do, in built-up areas, piled high on top of each other in high-rise apartments, bombarded day and night with the roar of city traffic and the blare of electronic music, we are in danger of losing our desert roots. And with that our inner life. We need to create a time and a space to nurture our spiritual lives. Lent is such a time. The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert and he remained there for forty days. Like Jesus, we should let the Holy Spirit lead us out into the desert this Lent where we can confront the devils that haunt our lives, and like him too, triumph over them. That is the freedom, dignity, and gift that is offered in today’s gospel.
Shun not the Struggle
A reflective way of looking at life is to see it as a struggle between sin and grace, selfishness and holiness. Our time on earth will be successful in the measure that we put aside sin and try to live by the grace of God. Today’s Scriptures show two contrasting reactions to temptation. The first humans, Adam and Eve, are imagined as preferring their own inclinations to the will of God. Jesus, the Saviour, on the contrary resisted temptation, remaining faithful to what God the Father required of him. St Paul reflects on how these choices affect ourselves: Adam’s sin brought trouble on all, but we are saved and offered new life because of the fidelity of Christ.
An old priest who was blind for many years before his death, liked to urge his penitents to renew their efforts with these inspirational lines:
“We are not here to play,
to dream, to drift. We have good work to do,
and loads to lift. Shun not the struggle.
Face it. ‘Tis God’s gift.”
Temptation in one form or another is an unavoidable part of life. If we honestly examine our daily experience, we can find many aspects of temptation: impulses or tendencies counter to the right way of doing things. To rationalise away these temptations, so that they become socially acceptable and politically correct–is itself an insidious temptation. We want to dictate for ourselves what is right and wrong, to draw for ourselves the boundaries of “acceptable” behaviour, unencumbered by any notional commandments of God. This is rather like Adam demanding to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Our real growth to Christian maturity comes by acknowledging and accepting the vocation of struggling against temptation, to achieve the kind of behaviour and attitudes Jesus expects. We must submit our behaviour to his gospel. Christ and Adam show the two opposite reactions in face of temptation: Adam, archetype of sinful, evasive, self-seeking humanity, finds plausible reasons to yield to it, and rebels against God’s will. Jesus, archetype of the new God-seeking man, resists temptation even repeatedly. It can only be conquered by this blend of patience and loyalty, supported by trust that what God requires of us is what is best for us.
Last Wednesday we began the season of Lent. We have five weeks of Lent now until Easter. Lent does not have quite the impact it used to have. It doesn’t seem to have as much of an impact on the lives of Christians as Ramadan has on the lives of Muslims. Yet, it is worth reminding ourselves that Lent is beginning. As a church we have set out on a journey which will end at the Easter Triduum, those three great days of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday. The gospel reading for the first Sunday of Lent is always the gospel reading of the temptation of Jesus. Mark’s account of the temptation of Jesus is the shortest by far. We are given no dialogue between Jesus and Satan; the temptations are not spelled out in any way. Instead we have that enigmatic statement that Jesus ‘was with the wild beasts and the angels ministered to him’.
We could think of wild beasts and angels as two opposing forces. The wild beasts could be understood as servants of Satan, putting Jesus’ relationship with God to the test, enticing him to put himself rather than God at the centre of his life. The angels, in contrast, are servants of God, supporting Jesus in his time of struggle, giving him the strength to stand firm in the test, to withstand the onslaught. There is some parallel between where Jesus found himself in that wilderness at the very beginning of his ministry and our own lives. We too can find ourselves caught between wild beast and angels. We too can find our best convictions, our deepest values, being put to the test. The values of the gospel are not always at home in the world in which we live. The pressure to compromise with those values can be very strong. We can find ourselves in something of a moral and spiritual wilderness where there is very little appreciation for or understanding of the gospel message. Indeed, we can feel very alone as Jesus must have felt very alone in the wilderness.
At such times we have to remind ourselves that we are not alone, no more than Jesus was really alone in the wilderness. The angels are ministering to us. The Lord’s ministering, empowering and comforting presence is always at hand. That was the opening message of Jesus as soon as he stepped out of the wilderness, ‘the time has come; the kingdom of God is close at hand’. Jesus had come up against the kingdom of Satan during his forty days in the wilderness. However he emerged from that testing time knowing that the kingdom of God was stronger than the kingdom of Satan, proclaiming that the reign of God was present for all. In his letter to the Romans Saint Paul would put that conviction in a very succinct fashion, ‘where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more’. That is why Paul could say to the members of the church in Corinth, ‘God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it’. There may indeed be wild beast out there, forces that seek to undermine our faith in the Lord and the way of life that flows from that. However, today’s gospel reading assures us that there is an even more fundamental reality, and that is the reality of the Lord’s empowering presence. The angels will minister to us; the Lord will stand by us. He has given us and will continue to give us an abundance of resources. God is constantly at work among us and within us. Like Saint Paul we can say, ‘I can do all things in him who strengthens me’.
One way of understanding Lent is to see it as the time when we try to give in to the many ways that God may be trying to touch our lives. We often think of Lent as a time when we try to give up things. There can be a real value in that. However, more fundamentally and more positively we might think of Lent as a time when we give in to the Lord who is always present to us and calling out to us. The church sets aside this season of Lent in the springtime of the year as a reminder that we may need to awaken spiritually. Although the Lord is present to us, we are not always present to him. Although the reign of God is at hand, we don’t always entrust ourselves to that good news. As we awaken spiritually, as we give in to the Lord, as we become more aware of the Lord who is around me, above me, below me, at my right hand and at my light hand, then we may experience a new desire to give up whatever is not serving our relationship with the Lord. We enter this season of Lent not just as individuals but as a community of faith. It is as a community that we are called to turn more fully towards the Lord and to walk together in his company towards Holy Week. ‘We will get to our destination if we join hands’ (Aung San Sui Kyi of Burma). [Martin Hogan]