This morning’s Gospel reading is Mark 1:12–15:
The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan. He was among wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him.
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.”
Today is our first Sunday of Lent, in which we begin our preparation for Holy Week with a recommitment to repentance and and discipline against temptation. This Gospel reading reminds us of what we’re up against in that task, but it’s even tougher than it suggests. Our priest mentioned this passage from today’s Gospel a couple of weeks ago with a joke during his homily. If you can’t make it to the desert to get afflicted by Satan, he told us, don’t worry — Satan will come to you!
And that’s all too true. Perhaps it’s even more so this particular Lent, in which we have spent plenty more than forty days and nights in isolation, thanks to the global pandemic. Being cut off from our communities, parishes, friends, and even family can produce crushing loneliness and disconnection. It is in those times of our lives that we become most vulnerable to despair, disbelief, rebellion, and temptation to find any connection, any control at all over our situation.
Truly, we do not need to go out into the desert to become vulnerable. But there are more forms of deserts than just the geographical, too.
However, in today’s readings, the literal desert offers an interesting counterpoint to our other two readings today, both of which rely on water. Our first reading in Genesis reminds us of the first covenant with the Lord, when Noah and his ark landed after the great flood. The Lord used water to cleanse the world of sin, an intervention that reordered the relationship between man and God. After having used water to cleanse, the Lord sets up the rainbow as a sign of His covenant — an optical phenomenon created by water in the air and sunlight passing through it. It emphasizes the use of water as a conduit between humanity and God.
In his first epistle, Peter reminds us that this prefigured baptism for precisely those reasons. Peter also gives perhaps the most concise theology of Christianity in the New Testament along with it:
Beloved: Christ suffered for sins once, the righteous for the sake of the unrighteous, that he might lead you to God. Put to death in the flesh, he was brought to life in the Spirit. In it he also went to preach to the spirits in prison, who had once been disobedient while God patiently waited in the days of Noah during the building of the ark, in which a few persons, eight in all, were saved through water. This prefigured baptism, which saves you now. It is not a removal of dirt from the body but an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers subject to him.
Water again becomes a conduit in baptism to the Lord, this time in its most complete form. God’s covenants with Abraham and Noah could be described as external in nature, in that they were interpreted to relate to corporeal existence. In baptism, however, the water brings the Holy Spirit into our hearts and leaves a very clear interior mark on us as children of God. Peter alludes to this interiority by noting that baptism does not remove physical uncleanliness but uncleanliness from our consciences, calling us to recognize sin and to choose against it. With baptism, water becomes the ultimate conduit for salvation in Christ.
And what is a desert? It is a place without water. It is a dry, harsh, and lonely place in which physical issues hit a premium. Both food and drink are scarce or altogether missing, which drives us further into self-interest and isolation. That is what we enter when we put aside God, or where we sometimes go in times of spiritual trial. We lose faith, and in doing so we can lose that conduit to the Lord. It is in those times where temptation amplifies to its worst, and when Satan can find ways to blind us and lead us astray.
This is what Christ conquered in the desert for our own salvation, however. Once baptized, we always have access to that water to help connect with the Lord. That cleansing can be perpetual as long as we keep focused on the Lord and not on our own self-interests and self-love/loathing. If you find yourself wandering in a desert, just remember that Christ’s oasis comes with you in the form of the Holy Spirit — and He is the surest guide to navigate you back.
The front-page image is a detail from “Christ in the Wilderness” by Ivan Kramskoi, 1872. On display at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, Russia. Via Wikimedia Commons.
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.