A reflection on the Sunday readings for February 21, 2021 — the First Sunday in Lent

Yesterday, I celebrated the funeral of the woman who gave me my favorite Lent story. She was a very pious woman and had a great sense of humor. I visited her a couple of years back on Ash Wednesday because she had requested ashes. After the prayers, she asked me what I was giving up for Lent. Honestly, I don’t remember what my response was. And then she winked and said, “I am giving YOU up for Lent.” It was one of those rare times when I did not have a comeback.

Lent 2021 is unlike any other. As if the last twelve months have not felt like a long Lent! But here we are. I would like to offer three points for reflection. These points are not meant to make life harder than it already is. Rather, they are meant to help us enter the wilderness with Christ, who took upon himself the task of our redemption. I am inviting you to enter the wilderness with him. Because when we do so, we will realize life takes on a deeper meaning. As hard as life has been the last year, it is the meaning that Christ gives to our lives that becomes our hope.

Wilderness, Identity & Mission

There is a big difference between Mark’s account of Jesus in the desert, and the Matthean and Lukan accounts. While Matthew and Luke describe Jesus’ forty days in the desert in great detail, Mark completely skips it. Marks only tells us what happened before he went into the desert and after he emerged from the desert. Before Jesus entered the desert, he was baptized and a voice from heaven affirmed him as “my beloved Son” (Mk 1:9-11). Here, Jesus’ identity is affirmed. After the temptation, emerging from the desert, Mark’s Jesus begins his ministry. We get to hear Jesus very first words, “The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mk 1: 14-15). Here, his mission was revealed. In other words, the desert becomes the link between Jesus’ identity and his mission. He is declared Son of God before he entered the desert and emerging from the desert, he inaugurated the Kingdom of God. For Mark, then, it is not the temptations themselves that is the focal point. His focus is on Jesus’ identity. His focus is on the mission that flows from his identity.

What does this mean for us? The last year has been like a desert, has it not? Now we enter the forty days of the Lenten wilderness. Without making this holy season harder than it already has been, I suggest we enter the desert with Jesus and focus on our identity and mission. As Mark reveals Jesus’ identity as the “Beloved Son,” let us too deepen our identity as God’s sons and daughters. Let us become more conscious of our dignity as God’s children. Let us choose to live more intentionally as the children of God. The implication of becoming conscious of our identity as God’s sons and daughters is that it begins to affect our daily living. It propels us into mission. Our life and our mission become the imitation of Christ. To embrace life like Jesus did; to live life generously like Jesus did; to love selflessly like Jesus did – this is our mission. During this pandemic, let us find meaning in our identity as God’s sons and daughters, and let us embrace the mission that emerges from our identity.

‘Driven’ by the Spirit

All the three accounts of Jesus’ forty days in the desert tell us that it was the Spirit that led him into the wilderness. Mark expresses this a little differently. He says that the “Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert” (Mk 1:12). Mark’s expression “drove Jesus,” is rather interesting. It is the same expression that is used when Jesus drove out demons. There is an element of coercion, of force. In this way, Mark underscores the power the Spirit. The same Spirit that descended upon Jesus at baptism now drives him into the wilderness. This shows Jesus’ docility, his humility, his submission to God’s will, his willingness to grapple with and embrace his identity and his mission. Jesus was totally available to the Spirit.

What does this mean for us? It means that too we must allow the Spirit we received at baptism to “drive us.” I am inviting you to understand the implication of this in all its depth. Allowing the Spirit to drive us means giving the Spirit free reign in our lives. It calls for humility, docility and total submission to God’s will. It compels us to relinquish any control we have and depend totally on God – like Jesus in the desert. It is an act of great faith because we do not know where the Spirit will lead us. This Lent let us give the Spirit the freedom. Let the Spirit drive us where the Spirit will. Life takes on a totally new meaning when we allow the Spirit to drive us.

Overcome and Embrace!

As I said earlier, the uniqueness of Marks narrative about Jesus temptation in the desert is that he does not give us any details. Even though Mark does not tell much us about the temptations themselves, he does say that Jesus was tempted. Whatever happened in the desert, Jesus came out of the desert proclaiming, “The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mk 1:15). We can assume, then, that in the desert Jesus overcame the temptation to abandon his identity and his mission. On the contrary, his message as he emerged from the desert tells us that he embraced his identity and his mission in its totality. He overcame the temptation of one possibility and embraced another possibility in its totality. This is why Jesus’ message as he emerged from the desert is of critical importance. “The Kingdom of God is at hand,” he proclaimed. “Repent and believe in the gospel!” (Mk 1:15).

What does this mean for us? This means that we are invited this Lent to repent and to believe. “Repent” means to overcome – that we overcome the very temptations that Jesus overcame; that we reject the lure of Satan to abandon our identity and mission; that we overcome Satan’s call to self-reliance; that we give the Spirit the freedom to drive us. To “believe,” is to embrace – that we allow Christ to lead us out of the desert; that we live our life in solidarity with Christ; that, like Jesus, we live our life in the firm conviction of our identity and our mission; that we imitate Christ as we navigate this life.

As I said in the introduction, this pandemic has made this Lent harder. Indeed, we are in the desert. But we are not alone. We are with Jesus and Jesus is with us. The most meaningful thing we can do is to enter the wilderness with Jesus. The most meaningful thing we can do is to allow the Spirit to drive us. The most meaningful thing we can do is to embrace the kingdom of God. The meaningful thing we can do is “repent and believe in the gospel” (Mk 1:15). The meaningful thing we can do is to overcome and to embrace. Let us make this pandemic Lent meaningful by overcoming the temptation to abandon our identity and mission and embrace life in the kingdom of God.

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Fr. Satish Joseph was ordained in India in 1994 and incardinated into the archdiocese of Cincinnati in 2008. He has a Masters in Communication and Doctorate in Theology from the University of Dayton. He is presently Pastor at Immaculate Conception and St. Helen parishes in Dayton, OH. He is also the founder Ite Missa Est ministries (www.itemissaest.org) and uses social media extensively for evangelization. He is also the founder of MercyPets (www.mercypets.org) — a charitable fund that invites pet-owners to donate a percent of their pet expenses to alleviate child hunger. MercyPets is active in four countries since its founding in December 2017. Apart from serving at the two parishes, he facilitates retreats, seminars and parish missions.

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