The story of the forty day sojourn in the desert in the Gospel of St. Mark might best be described as the bare bones edition. Despite its brevity, Mark’s account does accomplish the task of inaugurating the public life of Jesus. It also reminds us that Jesus’ struggle in the desert mirrors another desert struggle, a struggle that lasted forty years.
First we are told that Jesus is driven into the desert by the Spirit, the very Spirit that descended upon Jesus when he ascended out of the waters of the Jordan having been baptized by John. As Jesus ascended from the muddy waters of the Jordan, the Spirit descended upon him proclaiming that he was God’s beloved. While some may have taken this declaration of God’s love for Jesus as a signal to celebrate, it was that proclamation and that Spirit that drove Jesus into the desert to contend with Satan and the wild beasts while the angels ministered to him.
The gates of heaven had been shut by the disobedience of Adam and Eve. Heaven and earth became two different spheres through Adam’s fall from grace. The heavenly divine and the earthly human were torn apart. Even among many today, continuous communion between God and the human race is not deemed as real. While some may see some connection between God and human after the flesh has fallen away and only the soul remains, the descent of the Spirit at the Jordan tells us that God is opening the gates of heaven through the obedience of his Beloved, Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus realizes his mission is to restore the connection between God and creation, to reconcile what sin has destroyed. So the Spirit which has descended upon him drives him to the desert. There Satan and the wild beasts, which represent all the evils of this world, work to turn Jesus away from God while the angels minister to him and constantly remind him of God’s love. Israel struggled for forty years in the desert and failed whereas Jesus succeeds and begins to proclaim the Gospel of God, that the Kingdom of God is among us.
That proclamation is quite simple: “Repent, and believe in the Gospel.” Repentance means turning away from sin. Turning away from something implies turning toward something else. In this case it means turning toward the Good News of God’s love for us.
Why is it so difficult to repent and believe in the Gospel; namely, that we are loved by God, and called to embody that love in the time and space of earthly life? The answer to that question is quite simple. We fail to believe in the Gospel because we harbor so many other beliefs that do not fit into this Good News.
Beatrice Bruteau, in her article “Following Jesus into Faith,” enumerates a number of these beliefs:
- Health and beauty, money and power are necessary for happiness.
- I am identified by my body, personality, and possessions.
- My welfare is more important than yours.
- No one willingly gives up power.
- The world is here for us to exploit.
- No one can be trusted.
- There have to be winners and losers.
- They hurt me, so I must get even.
- I can’t feel good about myself unless I’m better than somebody.
- Some people are supposed to dominate other people.
- If everyone were good, life would be boring.
Of course, we are not always aware we hold these beliefs or other beliefs that block us from embracing the Good News. If we look at these beliefs carefully, we will discover that they were born when some injustice, some breach of faith, some lie penetrated our idyllic childhood or our early years and hardened us to the notion that God loves us.
Repentance means finding and letting go of beliefs that compete with or contradict the Gospel. Letting go of them is difficult because it means making ourselves vulnerable, capable of being hurt or lied to once again. Letting go means that we have to stare at the world and society around us and say, “I will not comply with the beliefs of this world.” Letting go is not a project for the six weeks of Lent. It is the adventure that permeates our lives when we accept the descent of the Spirit in our own lives and the proclamation that I am God’s Beloved. We will never finish letting go of false beliefs until we enter the Kingdom of God where we will embrace and embody the transcendent love at the center of our being.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator