21 Feb 2021

St. Mary’s Basilica, Sydney, 21 February 2021

“The Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness.” (Mk 1:12-15) So Mark begins his account of the temptations of Christ immediately after His baptism when that Spirit descended upon Him like a dove (Mk 1:9-11). The word Mark uses here is erēmon ἔρημον, from which we get our words hermit and eremitical. It’s variously translated as desert,[1] wilderness,[2] desolate or lonely place.[3] (Were it translated into Aussie-speak it would be “went bush”.)  Yet in the common use of the ancient world it also meant undefended place. By propelling Him into the wilderness, the Spirit was exposing Our Lord not just to loneliness but to wildness, danger, opposition.

How was Jesus imperilled? Not from the wild beasts, Mark makes clear, for the angels protected Him from these. Nor from God the Father, who had just declared from heaven “You are my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Mk 1:11). Not from God the Holy Spirit, who is clearly a good guy in the Gospel.[4] Nor from the Jewish authorities, who have not yet turned on Him but surely will,[5] or the Roman authorities who’ve not yet heard of Him but will ultimately crucify Him.[6] No, the danger from which Jesus is unprotected in this lonely place seems to be Satan, the Tempter. Though the beloved Son of God, Jesus is also Son of Man, and so He must engage in the same spiritual combat that every human being must…

Which might be some comfort to us.[7] Whether we are struggling with the big-D Devil or our own internal small-d demons – our passions, sins, vices, obsessions, addictions; when we feel we are making no progress in the spiritual life: today’s Gospel tells us that Jesus is with us. St Thomas Aquinas teaches that Jesus endured temptation so as to prepare us for temptations to come, to show us how to overcome them, to assure us of His mercy in our weakness, and to encourage our humility and vigilance – for none is so holy as to be beyond temptation! (STh IIIa 41, 1) However exposed Jesus was Himself, today’s lesson is about His sympathy and protectiveness of us.

In several places in the Old Testament God is compared with an eagle, rousing her chicks, hovering over them defensively, feeding them or bearing them to safety on her pinions.[8] Towards the end of His life, Jesus cries out, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem! How often have I desired to gather your children as a hen gathers her brood under her wings!” (Mt 23:37; Lk 13:34) Today our choir will sing George Malcolm’s setting of Scapulis suis, the communion antiphon for the First Sunday of Lent, from Psalm 90: “He will conceal you with his pinions and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will compass you as with a shield.” (Ps 90(91):4-5) He will deliver you, the same Psalm assures us, from the bird-catcher seeking to snare you – the Devil – from the deadly pestilence, the night-terrors and daily slings and arrows. Indeed, God the Father “will command his angels to guard you in all your ways and bear you up”, as He sustained Jesus in the desert. What a consoling thought, that God relates to us as a mother hen to her chicks, delivering us from evil.

A consoling thought, but a risky one. How easily we can become so sure of God’s mercy that we do nothing worthy of Him or ourselves. Easy, too, to be overconfident that we can resist temptation by our own will-power alone. Even Christ does not go alone into His contest in the desert; He’s driven there by – and therefore with – the Holy Spirit and attended also by the Father’s angels. If we stand alone, we will fall; only by opening our hearts to that hovering, clucking Spirit, will victory be ours.[9]

But if Christ endures temptations today so we might learn from this, we might expect Him to do so openly, not in some ‘lonely place’. Yet, the last beatitude He delivered before His ascension was “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” (Jn 20:29; STh IIIa, 41, 2 resp 1) We hear all Jesus wants us to know in the Gospels; we don’t have to have been eye-witnesses in order to know, love and serve Him. And because the spiritual combat is an intensely personal one, it is not normally conducted on the public stage, but more often in the wilderness of our own heart.

So Jesus enters the spiritual fray, mercifully understanding our weakness, generously seeking to protect us, affectionately inviting us to lean on His breast like a chick, as did the beloved disciple at the Last Supper (Jn 13:23; 21:20) – all at some risk to Himself. But the Devil was dreaming if he thought he could corrupt Jesus. In the end, the only one from whom Jesus is unprotected, who surrenders Him to danger and to whom He is vulnerable, is Jesus Himself. St Thomas continues, “Christ of His own free-will exposed Himself to be tempted by the devil, just as by His own free-will He submitted to death” (STh IIIa 41, 1 ad 2; 42 co.). Jesus chose to do battle with the forces of darkness, whether in our world or in our hearts.

And so we begin our forty days of Lent, forty days in the wet with Noah, forty days in the dry with Jesus. Jesus’ very first words in Mark’s Gospel, immediately after His baptism and desert trial, are: “The time has come and the kingdom of God is close at hand. Repent, and believe the Good News.” You might have heard those words as ashes were sprinkled on your head last Wednesday. Convert, the Lord says, put aside distractions, remove any obstacle to diving headlong into the adventure of the Gospel. Where you’ve turned away by sinning, turn back to the Lord and be forgiven in the ‘Second Baptism’ that is the Sacrament of Penance (cf. 1Pet 3:18-22). Pray, fast and give alms, not just because it’s the Lenten thing, but to signal and support your turn away from the Devil and towards God. You are not undefended in the spiritual desert. Jesus will conceal you with His wings and shield you with His faithfulness.

[1]     According to the Douay-Rheims English, Good News, International Children’s, Living Bible, New American and New International translations.

[2]     According to the Common English, Jerusalem English, King James, New English, Revised and New Revised Standard translations.

[3]     See various translations of Mt 14:13; Mk 1:35,45; 6:32; Lk 5:16.

[4]     cf. Mk 1:8,10; 3:29; 12:36; 13:11.

[5]     cf. Mk 2:24; 3:6,22; 8:11,15,31; 9:14; 10:33; 11:18,27; 12:13,38; 14:1,10,43,53,55; 15:1,3,10,11,31.

[6]     Mk ch. 15.

[7]     As the 16th century Carthusian commentator, John Justus Landsberg, suggests, “For this reason the Lord desires [us] to find comfort in his own example.” (Sermons: Opera Omnia, I)

[8]    Dt 32:11-12; Pss 104:27; 147:9; Job 38:41; Isa 40:31; Mal 4:2.

[9]     Landsberg continues, “We must be on the watch, mindful of our frailty, praying not to be put to the test, and keeping ourselves clear of every occasion of temptation.”

Welcome to St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney for the Solemn Mass of the First Sunday of Lent. Lent is a time of spiritual renewal, and so the Church exhorts us to fast and pray more than normal, as Christ does in today’s Gospel; to be extra-generous in charitable works and charitable giving such as Project Compassion; to join in devotions like the Stations of the Cross, taking home a palm or Easter water in Holy Week, and participating in the Triduum liturgies; above all, making a good Confession. In ‘purple time’ there are lots of options for doing something special for your spiritual life! A very warm welcome to all present, whether physically or virtually, as we join Jesus on His Lenten journey to the cross and resurrection.