In the spiritual reflection chosen for this week, Pope Francis, reflecting on today’s short Gospel from Mark, says that the Lenten journey we have just begun is not only a “time of combat” but also “forty days of solitude.” This may seem to be a contradiction. How can combat coincide with solitude? If we are alone, then whom are we fighting? We learn the answer as we reflect on the combat that Jesus entered. Against whom was Jesus fighting when he was in solitude in the desert? Not against any human enemy but against Satan, the enemy of us all. He entered into the battle raging between the “wild beasts” (representing all forces of evil) and the angels.
Lent is a desert journey. It is forty days of solitude because we draw aside from the noise and confusion of the world in order to strengthen and deepen our relationship with the Lord. It is a time of combat because we must do battle with a wide array of “wild beasts.” We are not contending with “flesh and blood,” but, as St. Paul teaches us, “with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness, with the evil spirits in the heavens” (Eph 6:12). We need an accurate and honest understanding of what tends to interfere with our relationship with God – our sin patterns, attachments, bad habits and weaknesses. Perhaps we lack courage, or we are judgmental, or we are prone to gossip. We may be especially vulnerable to the temptations that come to us through social media, such as pornography, which has trapped so many souls and injured so many families.
Jesus shows us in the gospel how to combat these “wild beasts.” His time in the desert is spent in union with the Holy Spirit. He perseveres in the battle for as long as necessary – the whole “forty days” – as the temptations that Satan proposes are exposed, and Jesus conquers them all. His victory is our victory! With the power of his Spirit, with his perseverance, we, too, can conquer the wild beasts that threaten us. He announces that “this is the time of fulfillment.” It is time for us to fight and to win, with his power.
The other readings today invite us to reflect on the “forty days in the desert” in connection with another biblical forty-day period that at first seems quite the opposite, the great flood in the days of Noah. Noah and his family survived this time of purification by taking refuge in the ark. In today’s first reading, God makes a solemn promise that there shall never again be such a flood to devastate the earth.
If there will never be another such flood, we may wonder what this story has to do with us and our Lenten journey. St. Peter explains that the ancient flood points to another great cleansing “flood,” the sacrament of Baptism. Just as Noah passed through the cleansing waters and entered into a new life and a new covenant relationship with God, so we have been cleansed and renewed by Baptism. We have entered the “ark” of the Church, and we are spending the days of Lent preparing for the day when we will emerge purified, when we will renew our baptismal promises on Easter Sunday. We are not concerned now with the “removal of dirt from the body,” but with the hope of living with “a clear conscience” through the power of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Therefore we are full of hope for the glorious outcome of our difficult desert journey. We take courage from Jesus’ proclamation, given to us as our marching orders for this first week of Lent: “The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.” The Gospel, the “good news,” is that Jesus has won the victory! In Baptism, he has made a covenant with us, to bring us into a new life with him, free from the power of sin and Satan. Now is the time to embrace this new life, the opportune time to repent and reform our lives. We are in the season of a combat that leads to victory with Christ, so we fight with great hope and joy!
What interferes with my relationship with the Lord? How can I live with a clear conscience? Am I hopeful for the graces of my Lenten journey?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 14, no. 3. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.