I had the privilege, when I was pastor of the parish in Clemson, South Carolina, of working with a wonderful Dominican nun, Sr. Doris. She is a great ball of energy, and efficient in getting things done. But she is so efficient, that she doesn’t bother with details. She had the un-nerving habit of beginning her conversations in the middle. She tended to leave out all the information you would need to figure out what she was talking about. She used to drive me nuts. Ever know anyone like that? I mention this because our Gospel today reminds me of Sr. Doris. Our Gospel today starts in the middle. It leaves out the first two words of the opening verse: “at once”. Go home and look it up in your bible, they start the verse in the middle.
It should begin, “At once”. “At once” after what? Well, to set the scene we need to go back three verses and start at verse nine: “It happened in those days that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized in the Jordan by John. On coming up out of the water Jesus saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit, like a dove, descending upon him. And a voice came from the heavens, "You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased."
At once the Spirit drove him out into the desert, and Jesus remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan” and so on.
What is going on here? Jesus comes to John the Baptist and is baptized in the Jordan River. And Jesus has this wonderful experience: He saw the heavens being torn open - this is dramatic and impressive - and the Spirit of God descends on Him like a dove. Then Jesus hears a voice from the heavens. “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”
Can you imagine how Jesus felt? It must have been wonderful! God the Father is just bursting with pride and joy over His Beloved Son Jesus, and Jesus must have swelled to the bursting point with gratitude and pride and deep, deep satisfaction. If you have ever had your parents or your spouse or a great friend tell you that they are really pleased in you, just so proud of you, you can get some idea of what Jesus felt.
Pretty good, huh? But the point is that Jesus is not allowed to stay there. He can not just bask and luxuriate in this warm, wonderful, fuzzy feeling. Because the very next words are the words left out of our opening verse in today’s Gospel. “At once”! No delay, no lingering to enjoy this revelation, no dawdling or hanging around.
Jesus has got work to do. “At once the Spirit drove him out into the desert, and Jesus remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan. He was among wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him. “
The Spirit drives, or literally, throws Jesus into the desert, to be tested, to be tempted by Satan. This is not a polite invitation, but a strong push. Jesus is driven, compelled by the Spirit.
In the desert Jesus is tempted by Satan. The word translated as “tempted” literally means to be put to the test. Now testing, while usually not comfortable, is not necessarily a bad thing. Testing allows us to see if we have what it takes to make the grade. An ambitious athlete wants a challenge that will test his or her strength, endurance, agility, talent. It is only in a challenge that they can prove themselves and excel.
Well, in our Gospel it is like Jesus is being pushed into the ring of a boxing match. Jesus is the spiritual athlete par excellence, and Jesus proves his ability to hold firm, to not give in to Satan.
Mark cryptically tells us “He was among wild beasts”. Perhaps lions and tigers and bears, oh my! But more importantly the kind of wild beasts all of us face: all those powers outside us that work for destruction, such as war, crime, discrimination, poverty, disease; and all those untamed beasts inside us as well: rage, fear, lust, greed, envy. Jesus is struggling with all these wild beasts.
But St Mark also mentions, “and the angels ministered to him. “ Jesus is also supported by God’s grace.
My brothers and sisters, the church gives us this Gospel at the beginning of Lent to be a sort of plan or pattern, (or for those who like 25 cent words,) a “paradigm” for us in this holy season. We have been baptized, like Jesus. We are therefore God’s beloved children.
God sends God’s Spirit on us, and God is well pleased in you, and me, and every Baptized person. That is wonderful! But we cannot just stay there, basking in God’s pride in us. We have work to do.
And so just as Jesus went into the desert for 40 days to be tested, so we enter into this holy season of the 40 days of Lent, and we are tested. We are tested and tried in order to grow: in compassion, in forgiveness, in generosity, in chastity, in honesty, in courage, and of course, in love. We do works of penance, not in order to be miserable, but to become stronger as Christians, as other Christs.
For example, this Lent our generosity, and probably our patience, is tested by the many special appeals with which we are presented. Catholic causes love to make their appeals in Lent. And as always, the needs are great. This weekend we have a second collection to support Catholic higher education and campus ministry in the diocese. Next weekend, we take up our monthly collection for Persons in Need. Two weeks later we have the special collection for Catholic Relief Services, the charitable arm of the US Catholic Church. Then the last weekend in March we take up our Grand Tour Collection to support our St. Austin Catholic School. The following weekend, on April First, the Persons in Need Collection returns. Later that week, on Good Friday, we have a collection for the Holy Land. And on the next weekend, Easter, we have a second collection to support Diocesan seminarians and retired priests.
That is a test. The Spirit pushes us. But taken in the right way it can make us more generous, more compassionate, more genuine Christians.
We enter into this Lenten desert to be tested, so that we might grow.
And what happened to Jesus after his 40 days of training? Well, John the Baptist was arrested. Thrown into prison, and it was pretty clear he was not going to be coming out alive. Jesus knew this was the fate of the prophets, and that if He started down that road, He too would eventually be killed. It did not take divine foresight to figure that one out. So when John was arrested, Jesus could have shirked His mission, kept a low profile and lead a simple and quiet life as a Judean peasant. But He didn’t. St. Mark states: “After John had been arrested, Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God: "This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel."Jesus passed the test. He proved his metal. He was up to the task. He got an A+! With God’s grace, we will do the same.