We stand poised at the beginning of the Season of Lent, and once again we are given the opportunity to reflect upon the Paschal Mystery and the impact it has in our lives. As we begin our journey through another season of Lent, the Liturgical Readings present us with themes that bring this into focus: On the First Sunday of Lent, we hear the story of the Temptation of Jesus in the desert; the Second speaks of the Transfiguration; the Third recalls the encounter with the woman at the well. The Fourth Sunday tells of the man born blind and the importance of the light of Christ in our lives; and finally, the story of Lazarus - the symbol of hope for all of us who come to new life in Christ.
We all know the story of Jesus' temptations very well. The Lord ventures out into the wilderness for 40 days - a time He needs to spend alone in the presence of His Father. We imagine that He needed this time - to fast, to reflect, to pray and to prepare for the ministry that He came to Live.
All three of the Synoptic Gospels place this episode immediately following Jesus' baptism by John in the Jordan. Prior to this, John the Baptist was the dominant figure of the story. His preaching began with "Repent! The Kingdom of God is at hand." His was a call to repentance - a warning - a call to change our ways because something big and wonderful was soon coming.
The Temptation Story now switches the focus of the story to Jesus and His messsage: "Rejoice! The Kingdom of God is already here!" His was an invitation - a call to experience the presence of the Father in our every moment, our every breath, our every encounter. It is an invitation to enter into the Paschal Mystery of suffering, death and resurrection as deeply and as completely as He was about to.
Jesus didn't just "venture out" into the desert/wilderness. It was the Spirit who led Him there. And it is this same Spirit who continues to lead Him, every time He "goes apart" to pray.
He will remember the desert stones as He watches His disciples bicker, and trip themselves up vying for "top honors" in the New Kingdom. He would see the broken promises of earthly kingdoms in the eyes and hearts of almost everyone around Him - including the chosen disciple turned betrayer. And He would think of how easy it would be to throw Himself down and just give up when it seemed that no one understood what He was trying to say.
He begins his ministry with little fanfare - alone with the Spirit, in the desert, in prayer. And when He emerges, He throws Himself totally into the humanity around Him. He chooses simple men and women to be His spokespersons: fishermen, a tax collector, sinners, prostitutes, a persecutor and a traitor. All of them perfectly frail in their human-ness, and weak in their commitment. He watches them come together, grow together, laugh and cry with one another, argue and dissent with one another, and learn to love another. They become the nucleus of His ministry. And from their weaknesses and failures, He gave them strength, nourishment and victory.
The temptations of Christ in the desert are our temptations as well.
So, let this Lent become for us a spirit-led experience. Take the chance, venture out into the darkness. Take some time to pray, to "reach out in the darkness," to reflect - to let the Father speak. (That means we have to listen!)
Let this season become the point which will buoy us when times seem at their lowest, when we feel our loneliest and when we recognize our weaknesses most acutely.
Let us all learn from the example of Jesus: pray, reflect, prepare for the Easter victory, and return from our personal desert experience prepared - perhaps just a little better - to face the daily reality of our lives.
Let the Spirit of God lead us to experience the fragrance of our God in our lives, to feel it all over our skin and in our hearts and our souls. Let it lead us to spread that fragrance among each other.