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12At once the Spirit drove him out into the desert,13and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan. He was among wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him.
14 After John had been arrested, Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God:15 “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.”
I have not checked the entire list, but I am sure this is the Sunday with the shortest Gospel in the whole Lectionary, just four verses. And although it is traditionally known as the “Sunday of Jesus’ Temptations,” the subject is dealt with in just two verses! There is a shocking difference between the way Matthew and Luke present this story when compared with Mark. Our text does not mention any of the elements the other evangelists consider essential: the substance of the temptations (obtaining personal advantage or profit by turning stones into bread; receiving admiration by recurring to God’s action to overcome showy, but unnecessary risks; and subjecting his condition as the Son of God to Satan’s power in order to possess riches and might). The text does not include any dialogue between Jesus and Satan, nor does it mention Jesus’ fasting or hunger. But, in spite of its simplicity, the tiny fragment contains a number of connotations a Jewish reader would easily understand. (Unfortunately, just like us, Christians from a Greek-Roman context must have felt a bit “at sea.”)
But there is more to this first Sunday of Lent than the text from Mark. Let us start with the first liturgical celebration. In the rite of the imposition of ashes, the minister repeats: “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel,” recalling the basic words pronounced by Jesus when he began his ministry proclaiming the coming of the Kingdom. The beginning of Lent is, in a sense, the anticipation of the entire ascent towards the paschal celebration in Jerusalem. And, of course, it recalls God’s invitation to imitate his fidelity. In spite of Israel’s failures and sins, God will never send the waters again “to become a flood and destroy all mortal beings” (Genesis 9:15). Water, on the contrary, will become, in baptism, the source of new life in Christ (1 Peter 3:21) and, together with the light, will be the core of the Paschal Vigil.
The two verses of Jesus’ temptations contain, as I said before, a great number of allusions that we should examine. Jesus does not go to the desert on his own initiative, but is driven, “forced” by the Spirit, and stays there for forty days, just as the Hebrews had been led by Yahweh through the desert, for forty years, before entering the Promised Land. Jesus’ temptations (as we saw, Mark does not mention any in particular) are not an enticement to make him trip and fall, but rather an “exercise” to put him to the test and “temper” him before facing the mission he has to fulfil, much like Abraham when he was asked to sacrifice Isaac (Hebrews 11:17), or Adam in the Garden of Eden (another contrasting allusion to Jesus’ desert). Together with this context, Mark also mentions wild beasts and angels, and that brings to our memory Psalm 91. In a long prayer of confidence in the Lord, the just are described as the ones who live under God’s protection. Although they may be surrounded by dangers of every kind (snares set by enemies, pestilence, an army of foes, asps, lions or dragons), there is nothing they must fear, for the faithfulness of the Lord is a protecting shield. Even the angels have been ordered to guard them wherever they goes, and support them with their hands. In fact, both Matthew and Luke quote this psalm in their parallel story, although the purpose and context are utterly different. After this, Mark will sum up Jesus’ mission and his basic message in two simple verses: “The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.”
In a sense, Mark’s terse, almost laconic description of the temptations can be extremely helpful. Strictly speaking, the elaborate content of the other Synoptic accounts were to be understood as temptations, not only of Jesus and his Messianic role, but also of the Church and her relationship to power and other worldly means. Mark, instead, leaves us before this time of conversion with “open questions” about ourselves and the realms and ways in which we should transform our lives to make them consistent with the Gospel. What are our real temptations; what can divert us from following Jesus? Very rarely will we admit that behind lust there is a desire of dominion; or that selfishness is in fact a sign of our fear of “losing ourselves;” or that envy may hide a lack of acceptance of our mediocrity. Only in a sincere and humble silence can we face our real failures and shortcomings, not in the routine of repeating the commandments. Accordingly, our conversion must take our deep reality as the starting point to find the way to return to the “ways of the Lord,” taking up our cross and following him.
Lent is a period of time for prayer and reflection. Let us take things with calm and patience. Just a couple of concrete prayers today. Let us pray for those who face serious decisions in their lives: that they may discard the options that contradict the Gospel or their personal commitment to Jesus, and may make the right choice. And let us pray for ourselves: that this time of Lent may make us aware of our real selves (with our limits, failures, assets and possibilities), and find the way to get rid of whatever hinders us from being faithful to the Gospel, that we may grow in love for Jesus and our brothers and sisters.
Fear is one of the factors that prevent us from putting into practice the demands Jesus poses when he invites us to follow him. Fear of change, of renouncement of our life-style, fear of losing ourselves and our comfortable, custom-made Christianity, of the risks of being witnesses to Jesus and his Gospel. Read again Psalm 91: “You who dwell in the shelter of the Most High…“and John’s chapter 16. Even if the path is hard, Jesus’ words reassure us: “Take courage. I have conquered the world.”
Reflections written by Rev. Fr. Mariano Perrón, Roman Catholic priest, Archdiocese of Madrid, Spain http://www.americanbible.org