On this first Sunday, the Gospel brings us to the roots of the Lenten journey in the life of Christ – his temptation in the desert. All the synoptic Gospels narrate this episode; after his baptism by John, Christ entered the desert. We will begin our pondering this week by trying to unpack the first sentence in today’s Gospel: “The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert.”
The desert is a place of desolation. It is comprised of seemingly endless sand with hardly any water. There is nothing to sustain life. The Gospel throws in other elements: the activity of Satan and the presence of wild beasts. That Jesus begins his public ministry in this way tells us that his earthly life is an entry into the desert of our human condition. He has joined us in a wild and desolate world, filled with temptations and danger.
In complete contrast to this desert desolation is the Spirit who led Jesus there. While the desert is dry and barren, the Holy Spirit is often represented as water and life – themes which are particularly prominent in the Gospel of John. Today’s second reading also ascribes to the Spirit the mission of giving life. Jesus, who was “put to death in the flesh,” was “brought to life in the Spirit.” The reading proceeds to speak of the life-giving power of the water of Baptism, a reminder to us that the penitential journey of Lent is directed toward the renewal of our baptismal promises. When we rejected Satan and all his works and all his empty promises, and we professed faith in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we were “saved through water.” We died to sin and rose into a new life.
In the Gospel’s first sentence, between the desolate desert and the life-giving Spirit, we have the verb drove. It is a strong and active word, reminding us that the Spirit is driving us too into the serious work of penitence and conversion. Our journey requires a firm and purposeful decision; we cannot be faithful to our covenant without it.
The reading from Genesis recalls the covenant that God made with Noah and his descendants. After the great flood cleansed the world of all its evil, God made a life-giving promise. His covenant was a firm commitment never again to destroy all creatures with a flood. The rainbow is a beautiful reminder of God’s promise and his faithfulness. The passage does not mention the other side of the covenant, our part, but if God is faithful, we too must be faithful. We have already been cleansed by the “flood” of grace in Baptism. Now, driven by the Holy Spirit, we make a renewed, firm commitment to reject temptation and sin, and to live in fidelity to the promises of our Baptism. Here we may recall the three pillars of our Lenten program: prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Now is the time to intensify our prayer, to deliberately refrain from satisfying our desires, and to use the resources gained by our fasting in ways that will help others.
But the focal point in the Gospel’s first sentence, its thematic middle, is the Person of Jesus Christ. He is the embodiment of God’s covenant made to Noah. His being driven to the desert is the fulfillment of God’s promise to “never again destroy all mortal beings.” He is showing us a path to overcome the temptations of Satan, to conquer our wildness and to set free our spirits imprisoned by sin. Jesus is the answer to the plea of our hearts, expressed in the words of today’s Psalm: “your ways, O LORD, make known to me; teach me your paths, guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my savior.”
The “path” of the Lord is a path of repentance and renewal. This is the message of Jesus from the very start of his ministry: “Repent, and believe in the gospel.” In our desert pilgrimage of life, we do not live on bread alone but on such words from our Lord. Lent is not merely more rituals; it is a renewed call to reject the desolate emptiness of sin and to “believe in the gospel” – that is, to follow Jesus, the Way, the Truth and the Life.
Will Jesus be my constant companion as I enter the desert this Lent? Am I open to the Spirit as He drives me into the serious work of penitence and conversion? This Lent, am I ready to renew my call to reject the desolate emptiness of sin and to follow Jesus?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 17, no. 3. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.