Sunday reflection by Very Reverend Stephen E. Salocks, Rector of Saint John's Seminary - February 21, 2021
Traditionally, the Gospel for the First Sunday of Lent presents us with an account of Jesus’ experience of forty days of temptation in the desert. Pope Benedict XVI reminds us that each of the first three Gospels tells us that after the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River, when the Holy Spirit descended upon him and formally anointed him with his Messianic office, the Spirit immediately led him into the desert to be tempted by Satan. Jesus, the Son of God and the Son of Mary, descended “into the perils that beset all of humankind because there was no other way to lift up fallen humanity. Jesus had to enter into the drama of human existence because that belongs to the very core of his mission, and he had to penetrate it completely, down to its uttermost depths, to find the lost sheep,’ to bear it on his shoulders and to bring it home” (Jesus of Nazareth, 2007, 26).
Today, St. Peter tells of Jesus going to make a proclamation “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.” By contrasting the destructive power of water with the life-giving power of the waters of baptism, Peter points to the power of God that is manifested in the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, “for the sake of the unrighteous, that he may lead [us] to God.” Here is the power of the Gospel! Christ’s death is good news for all times and liberation for all peoples, saving not just a handful of people in an ark but saving us all as we come through the waters of Baptism.
Returning to Mark’s brief account of Jesus’ temptations, we want to appreciate the Spirit’s role as he leads Jesus into the desert. Jesus encounters Satan, wild beasts, and angels, but Jesus is not alone. Not only is the Spirit with him, but also angels minister to him. When he emerges after forty days, the message he proclaims is clear: God’s reign is at hand; repent and believe in the Gospel. Jesus’ experience in the desert was significant in several ways. As he entered into the trials and temptations of human existence, he was also expressing his faithfulness to the ways of God over the course of his forty days in the desert - and in the ministry that would follow. As he emerged from the experience, he proclaimed not only the Good News of the Kingdom’s presence but also our response: repent and believe in the gospel.
As Lent begins, we are called once again to strengthen our identification with Jesus, who has identified so strongly with us. We are invited to spend these forty days following Jesus’ example by continuing to learn the ways of God. We are to trust that we are never alone and that God's help is always with us. We want to hear and respond to the challenge to confront the sinfulness, emptiness, and infidelity of our own lives in response to Jesus’ exhortation and invitation to repent and believe in the Gospel.
Christian tradition has always recognized the spiritual battle that is an essential part of our life and following of Christ. Repeatedly, the Church reminds us that all human history is a story of combat with powers of evil (Catechism, 409). This combat entails both the struggle against our own tendencies to sin and the rejection of Satan and all his glamorous seductions. Following the example of Jesus and empowered by his Spirit, we are to repel the enemy through prayer and perseverance. The Lenten exercises of repenting of sin, returning to the Gospel prepares us to recommit ourselves to our baptismal promises. May God, who never leaves us without his help, be with us in our journeys through the wilderness and guide us to the victory of Christ that we will celebrate at Easter.