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February 18, 2018

Out of the four gospels, Mark’s account is the shortest. His gospel, his account on Jesus’ teachings and deeds is very succinct, very matter of fact. This feature applies also on Mark’s story on Jesus’ temptation in the desert. In comparison to Matthew and Luke, Mark’s account sounds like a brief summary in a very laconic style: not more than a set of short phrases jotted down as brief reminder notes, a mere skeleton, just an outline of a report. Let’s take these brief phrases one by one and with the help of the Holy Spirit let’s try to fill this skeleton with flesh and blood and skin, and make it alive for ourselves as Jesus Christ Himself is alive in His glory.

1. The Spirit drove out Jesus into the desert. Jesus of Nazareth, the incarnate Son of God was, from the first moment of His conception in His mother’s womb, wholly united with the Holy Spirit, and, through the Holy Spirit, he was one with the Father. While we believe this strongly, we have no way of telling how much Jesus was aware of it with His human knowledge as a baby, or as a 6 year old child, or as a growing young man. Yet, it is sure that the full revelation of His own true identity had been complete at the time of His baptism in Jordan by John the Baptist which has been indicated by the presence of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove and by the voice of the Father from heaven. By now Jesus was completely aware that all His actions are directed by the Holy Spirit, that his daily bread is to do the will of His Father. Following His baptism, this Holy Spirit was “driving,” as if pushing Him into the desert, into solitude, into silence, away from the distractions of the world and close to His heavenly Father. This was the time of an intensive preparation for His public ministry, a time of becoming ready to proclaim the message of the dawning of a new era in mankind’s history, a time of becoming ready for His audience’s reaction to this message, whether this reaction will be acceptance or rejection, a time of becoming ready for the final battle, the final show-down between Himself and Satan which was culminating in His death on the cross and the victory of His resurrection from the dead. For Jesus His time spent in the desert was not a waste of time, not an idle time, not a kind of vacation or retirement from the worries of daily life but, on the contrary, was an extremely important time, an integral part of Jesus’ salvific action, a time of being energized for everything that followed this time period.

2. And he remained in the desert for forty days. The length of time spent in the desert indicates several things. In general, in biblical times, the time of 40 was the symbolic number of perfection, of completeness, and thus the time periods of forty days or forty years in the Bible indicate a special grace-filled, God-blessed time, time spent in God’s closeness, under the loving protection of God, be that Noah’s sojourn in the arc during the flood, or Moses’ stay on Mount Sinai, or the time of penance for the people of Nineveh in the story of Jonah the Prophet, or Elijah the Prophet’s travel to Mount Horeb. In particular, Jesus’ 40 days’ fasting in the desert is a kind of re-enactment of the Hebrew nation’s forty years’ stay in the desert as their time of special closeness to Yahweh: Jesus re-lives in His own person the history of Israel. So the simple mentioning of the 40 days’ time period indicates that this was a holy time, a consecrated time, a time of salvation. As we imitate now Jesus’ fasting of 40 days in the desert in our own Lenten discipline, we, too, should realize that Lent should mean for us a kind of desert-stay in our lives in which we find, like an oasis, various opportunities of special closeness to God.

3. Tempted by Satan. The real battle between Jesus and Satan has begun here in the desert, during these forty days time period of grace. It has begun here and now and it will end only at the Last Judgment; the battle that started in the person of Jesus, continues in His mystical Body, the Church, it continues also in each of us in the temptations and struggles we experience. Jesus wanted to share all our human experiences except sin: God allowed Him to be subjected to the attacks of Satan here in the desert, just as He was tempted later in His agony before his arrest and suffering: Yes, Jesus wanted to share all our trials, all our difficulties, everything except sin. St. Paul warns us that what we really have to fight against is not flesh and blood, not our own body: it is rather the evil spirits, God’s opponent and enemy who hate God and everybody who is on God’s side. Our consolation is that the same Jesus who shares with us the experience of being tempted, will share with us also His power to resist the temptations with the similar resolute perseverance that He showed against the attacks of Satan.

4. He was among wild beasts, and angels served Him. Jesus was not in a friendly environment. He was surrounded by dangers, hostility, all kinds of depravation. We should not be surprised either if our good intentions encounter opposition, lack of understanding, even hostility and ill will. On the contrary: that may be the indication that we are on the right path. St. Teresa of Avila welcomed failures and fiascos in her life because she took them as signs that her projects must had been very good if Satan opposed them so much. God does not want to spoil us: from time to time He allows us to meet opposition, or lack of cooperation, or apathy, so that we would try again and again and try even harder. Yet, among wild beasts, angels served Jesus: He was their supreme Lord and they accepted his lordship. Maybe Jesus did not experience the angels’ friendly presence just as we don’t experience it frequently, yet we should know in our faith that God’s angels, God’s protection, God’s assistance are always close to us; even if we live in an unfriendly environment we are surrounded by heavenly companions. This faith should give us strength in the face of opposition.

5. This bold sojourn in the desert made Jesus ready to proclaim the gospel, the good news. This good news is double: first that this is the time of fulfillment, that the time of salvation has arrived, it is here and now that we are living in the time of the fulfillment of all the promises, the time of waiting is over; and second: that the time of fulfillment has just started and is not yet completely realized, not completely developed; the Kingdom of God is growing in us and around us, we just have to cooperate with it. This means that God’s reign, God’s kingship over us is only at hand but it is our job to reach out for it and make it our own. Our Lenten exercises, like prayer and fasting and giving alms, the various acts of Christian charity are needed to make God’s presence a reality and make it grow in our lives, that this is truly the time of fulfillment, that His kingdom is here but it depends on me how much I allow Him to rule over me, over my time, over my life.

Finally a reminder that Lent is the time to make a good confession. Three student devils were preparing to go to earth for some on-the-job training. Their teacher asked them what strategy they had decided to use to get people to sin. The first devil said, I think I’ll use the tried-and-true approach. I’ll tell people, ‘There is no God, so enjoy life’.” The teacher nodded approvingly. Then he turned to the second devil and said, “What about you?” The second devil said, “I think I’ll use a more up-to-date approach. I’ll tell people, ‘There is no hell, so enjoy life’.” Again, the teacher nodded approvingly. Then he turned to the third devil and said, “What about you?” The third devil said, “I think I’ll use a more down-to-earth approach. I will simply tell people, ‘There’s no hurry, so enjoy life’.” Satan smiled and said to the third devil, “Do that, my son, and you will deceive many.”

You cannot put your house in order too soon, because you never know when even “too soon” may be “too late.” There is one thing we may not postpone: it is our conversion.

Rev. Julius Leloczky, O.Cist

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