First Sunday of Lent Homily
by Fr Cedd Mannion OSB
The Gospel of Mark, which we read on Sundays for much of this liturgical year, is a notoriously dense and colourful text. St Mark often manages to pack a remarkable amount of detail into a very few words. This is certainly the case with today’s Gospel. In 3 short verses, Mark says a good deal, and it is worth unpacking.
The account of the Temptation of Jesus in the desert is read every year on this Sunday, and we might ask why this is. I don’t think it is just because of the reference to the forty days, which dovetails so well with Lent. I think that, as with the Gospel and perhaps the scriptures more generally, the events in the life of Jesus are not (or should not) be simply of historical curiosity to us; no, they often represent things which will happen to us – to any Christian – in the course of our life and discipleship. What, then, does this short account of the temptation of Jesus have to say to us? Perhaps we should ask in detail what the Gospel says and – frankly, given its length – what is written between the lines.
We hear of Jesus enduring a period of time in the desert, during which he was put to the test by Satan: tempted. The other accounts give us an idea of the hardships that he endured: not just the psychological hardship of having to experience and withstand temptation, but also the physical hardship of hunger. I think it is worth noting that, in the context of the whole Gospel, it follows very closely on the Baptism of the Lord, the time when Jesus was submerged in the water and heard the voice of the Father saying to him: ‘You are my beloved Son, in you I am well-pleased.’ I think that this too can say something to us. I hope that I am not the only one who does not spend the whole of the spiritual life on cloud nine. I think it is quite a common experience that our spiritual life is a series of alternating phases, some relatively easy (if you like), some more trying, somewhere God seems very present and the spiritual life is something that gives us a deep joy (periods of consolation if you like), others where God seems quite absent, and the spiritual life seems to be a trudge (periods of desolation). Sometimes, as in the case of our Lenten observances, we choose the training that we are going to undertake in spiritual things. At other times, it will seem to be imposed from without. Interestingly, St Mark seems to tell us that this was what happened to Jesus: he tells us that Jesus was driven out into the desert by the Spirit.
I think this is important. We can sometimes wonder what causes us to move from consolation to desolation. Is it something to do with our sin? Well, I suppose it might be, but the important thing to note is that it needn’t be: as with Jesus, it can be that we endure these periods of difficulty to serve some greater providential purpose, to train us in the spiritual life.
The fact that the trials come upon Jesus in the desert, the wilderness, is significant, I think. Obviously there is something quite inhospitable about the Palestinian desert, particularly in the heat of the Summer, but there is also that fact that it is desert: there is nothing there, there is nowhere to go, and perhaps more importantly nowhere to hide. It is in this context that the temptations emerge. I think it can be the same with us. It is often when we do take time out to concentrate on spiritual things (maybe the season of Lent, maybe a retreat or something like that) that these temptations and suggestions emerge. Our temptations will not necessarily be the particular ones that were tried on Jesus, naturally, but they will have a particular form which is related to the people we are. We might, in the ordinary run of things, try to ignore them, or repress them, by taking refuge in distractions or displacement, but this is not possible in the sort of desert context in which Jesus found himself, and in which we sometimes find ourselves: a situation which, in Lent, we perhaps choose, at least to some extent.
I suppose the question is: what is our response to them? One possible response is just to follow every suggestion that arises in our heart. The problem with that is that the heart tends to be, as scripture tells is, a devious thing, and whilst some of the thoughts that emerge from it are good and come from God, others (maybe quite a lot of others) do not: we do not know where they come from. I don’t think that a life lived by giving in to every last impulse is, in the last analysis, a life at all: we are just letting ourselves be carried along on the particular wave that happens to be in our life at the moment.
Another possibility is to try somehow to defeat these thoughts: to squash them out somehow, to sweep them under the carpet. The problem here is that, when we push them down in one place, they tend to arise again in another.
The final possibility is to try to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. His response to the temptations is quite simple. He is not afraid of them, he is not threatened by them. He is, I suppose quite discerning about them: he considers them carefully, often in the light of scripture. His response to them is in terms of scripture. We could do worse than to try to put scripture at the centre of our life as we endure, live through our own 40 days in the wilderness this Lent. The other thing to say about Jesus’ response is that he shows himself, in his humanity, to be utterly dedicated to and reliant upon God: if he tries to avoid the things the temptations are placing in his path, it is because he loves God and his will. If he is able to defeat the temptations, it is because he puts himself entirely in the power of God, trusting that God will have the power to defeat them.
Let us then try to become aware of the things in our hearts which God is, in his providence, asking us to face up to this Lent. Let us give time for lectio divina, the prayerful reading of scripture, so that we can understand what we find in our hearts in the light of what God is saying to us, and cling to that. And let us resolve to recognise that, whatever the thoughts are that we find there, we will only be able to overcome them and live through them in a fruitful way if we entrust ourselves to the power of God.