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The Church serves as a leaven and as a kind of soul for human society as it is to be renewed in Christ and transformed into God's family. [ Gaudium et Soes #40]

Lent. Desert. Mountaintop. Temple

A preliminary note. When I was a pastor, I would often use the weekly bulletin articles I wrote as a way to comment on the Sunday readings. When I retired from being a pastor and created this blog, I thought I would no longer do that, partly because I knew I could not commit to writing something each week. However, with my recent temporary assignment back to pastoring several parishes, I will do a little more of that type of reflection in these blogs, if I am able.


The Lectionary for Lent during Year B (our current year) chooses gospel passages that come from Mark or John.  And, in each of the first three weeks of Lent, these gospel passages give us a key image for reflecting on our Lenten journey: the desert; the mountaintop; the Temple.


The First Sunday of Lent: The Desert.


Notice Mark’s words about Jesus’ experience going into the desert. “The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert”. God does not test Jesus, but the Spirit of God does ask him/us to confront the deepest temptations of our lives.  So, in the desert Jesus is tested by Satan. Having so recently and intensely experienced at his baptism how much he is beloved by the Father, Jesus needs to come to terms with what God is asking of him for the rest of his life. Unlike the gospels of Luke and Matthew, Mark does not describe the testings or temptations or organize them into three key ones. Instead, Mark seems to imply that Jesus was tested in every way that would tempt him to not trust completely in the Father’s love. Passing the “test” for Jesus meant that wherever the Spirit of God would “drive” him in life (endless series of healings, confronting authority and challenging the status quo, disappointment in disciples, facing evil, experiencing torture and death), he will accept, rather than claiming his personal freedom to do otherwise.


On the first Sunday of Lent, we always get one of these passages on Jesus’ temptation in the desert, and so one image for us during the Lenten season is that of the desert. That is why we are asked to do some type of fasting and abstinence during the season.  Are we, like Jesus, able to use our personal freedom not simply to enhance our well-being and satisfaction, but to respond to any or all whom the Spirit “drives” us to care about, interact with, show mercy toward?  Fasting/abstinence/penance is a way to challenge our dependence on satisfying our hunger for food, drink, social communication, recognition, clothing, and the like. In the desert, we live with less and find a way to acknowledge how we can at times put way too much emphasis on the material and passing things of this world than is necessary. We are invited to take time to look into the depths of our heart and let go of fears and simply trust in God’s love for us.  In the church’s liturgical environment, we symbolize that by keeping the church environment fairly stark during this seaon and using purple as a sign of a penitential heart.


Of course, for some (many?) of us the desert is already surrounding us. It is the condition of our daily lives. We do not need to fast and abstain in order to enter into that experience. Life does that for us. Life hits us with shot after shot. The usual comforts of our lives get tested by unexpected losses.  We lose people we love; plans fail; relationships break apart; jobs are lost; health issues emerge; and so forth. Lent then becomes not a decision to fast or abstain but an intentional decision to recognize our grief and disappointments and yet, in the midst of them, to say “Yes” daily to trusting in God.


Back to Mark’s gospel.  It is the Spirit that drives Jesus into the desert. He is not seeking the desert or the testing.  Rather, it is something that hits us from outside ourselves and we are asked to trust in the Spirit as we confront those deserts.  At one level, Lent is really a paradox. We are asked to take on individually and collectively a rhythm of penance—traditionally prayer, fasting, and almsgiving—but if we are not careful, we use these actions too often to increase our self-sufficiency or self-worth. Look at me/us: we can give up food or alcohol or snacks or internet if needed; I’m losing weight; I am not addicted to these things.  Look at me/us: are we not charitable and generous?  How close to God and wonderful I feel after spending time in prayer, but has it affected my attitude and response to others? Am I more ready to trust in God and show mercy, when something unexpectedly happens?  We practice acts of penance, yet in so practicing, we know how insignificant it really is. Remember the gospel from Ash Wednesday: to fast, pray, give alms, or mark ourselves outwardly with ashes so that people know we are doing it makes us hypocrites, not saints. How do we get out of turning Lent into yet another exercise of our self-sufficiency? How might we resolve the paradox?


Listen to Jesus’ words when he comes out of the desert: “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.”  The whole point of the season is to de-clutter our minds, hearts and bodies so that we can hear that call of God, which challenges our status quo, our comfort zones, our current ways of thinking and acting.  Lent is not mainly about what we can accomplish spiritually for ourselves.  It is a season that is inviting us to hear anew the Lord’s call to repentance, a change of life and attitude, whenever and however it comes to us, so that we can be God’s mercy to others.  Our personal acts of penance lead us to becoming more docile to the Spirit, so that we find ourselves better able to hear God’s call to us.  The real penance is responding peacefully and lovingly to others in all situations. The penances we take on for Lent are trying to remind us (ideally some type of daily penance) that we too often put unnecessary wants and desires in the way of responding to the Spirit of God.


So, let us willingly enter the desert, when it is thrust upon us.  Yes, it is a wilderness of uncertainty, but let us not be afraid of the desert. As Israel discovered in its forty years of living in the wilderness, and as Jesus experienced in his forty days in the desert: the Spirit of God does not abandon us in the desert but sends his angels to minister to us.


The Second Sunday of Lent. The Mountaintop.


The second Sunday of Lent brings us the image of the mountain. Abraham is asked to go to the mountain of Moriah, thinking he will have to sacrifice his son, Isaac.  In the gospel Jesus ascends the mountain where he experiences a transfiguration and a taste of the glory that will be his, though he also knows the certainty that he will have to face suffering and death first.


The Church begins the season of Lent with those extremes of desert (where it seems hard to experience the love and nearness of God) and the mountain (where the fullness of God is so tangibly close).  In particular, connected to this second Sunday gospel reading, our glimpses of the glory and fullness of God are always fleeting. Like Peter we want to stay in those moments and their feeling of well-being and peace. But they vanish and the reality of daily life and its struggles re-emerges. It’s like the experience of a retreat or revival or day of prayer.  During these we experience a closeness to God and one another in a profound way, an energy to change our lives and give ourselves more fully to God.  But then, time to come home and live the reality of family and school and negotiating friend/peer relationships—in other words, the struggles of life. We can never stay on the mountaintop, though the glimpses of God’s overwhelming love we get while on the mountain help to sustain us in our daily lives.


The second Sunday of Lent proclaims to us that the glory and goodness and overwhelming closeness of God constitutes what is most true about life. But this Sunday’s readings also help us to realize that we are on journeys which will demand sacrifice, take up crosses, and persevere in the midst of suffering. There is no way to succeed on such journeys by being weak of heart, focused only on our own needs and well-being, worried about unimportant things. So, we take some extra reflective time in prayer so that we do not forget that our relationship with God is the most important reality in life.


The Third Sunday of Lent. The Temple.


In this third week the image of the temple surfaces from the gospel of John and his account of Jesus’ disrupting the market atmosphere of the temple area. What can we learn from contemplating the image of the temple?


First of all, the word and concept come from a human desire to create a dedicated or sacred space within which God can be petitioned. The value of a temple for a society was that it created a visible symbol that our human activity is answerable to something greater than us—God. At its best, temple worship helped to consecrate daily life and the key events of daily life (birth, death, harvest, etc.) so that people could more easily appreciate the presence of God in what was happening. But there were also dangers in having a temple. People could begin to believe that temple sacrifice was what was important rather than living a just life. The priestly caste that grew up around a temple could lose sight of their role as servants and use temple sacrifice to enhance their status and line their own pockets.


Secondly, the temple was never a necessary component of Jewish faith. Long before there was a temple in Jerusalem the people of Israel believed that they were called by God to be God’s holy people. In the exodus from Egypt the people received the Torah, the Law, from God. What made them holy was not that they offered animal sacrifice or temple sacrifice. Rather, what made the people of Israel holy was to maintain fidelity to Yahweh their God, to have no other god, to live the covenant relationships of justice which God had established.


So, when Jesus comes to the temple in Jerusalem and overturns the tables of moneychangers and drives out those selling various animals for sacrifice, he is acting in the line of the great Jewish prophets. He is reminding the people that temple worship is never an end in itself. Through his actions Jesus, like prophets of old, is declaring that God is pleased with temple sacrifice only if it leads to a true change of mind and heart, to living the covenant with Yahweh their God. And, in turn, the way one knows one is living that covenant with God is by how one treats one’s neighbors, especially the marginal (orphan, widow, immigrant/foreigner). That is why the Church’s first reading for this third week of Lent is taken from the Book of Exodus and recounts those commandments which God established for his people. In essence, the Church is trying to shape our Lenten journey and point it toward what is most important. We could begin to think that our Lenten acts of penance are ends in themselves or make us holy. No, what makes us holy is what has always made the people of God holy—living the covenant relationships God has established for us: to love God fully and completely and without reserve and to love our neighbor as ourselves. As we contemplate the image of the Temple in Lent, we are challenged to not contain God’s holiness within a space or within limits that we impose. Instead, God’s holiness will be most deeply experienced when we risk being in right relationship with others, when we put that holiness of God into practice through acts of justice and mercy.


We can see each of these first three weeks of Lent as reflections on one of the three Lenten pillars—fasting, prayer, almsgiving. The first week’s desert encourages us to fast in a way that strips us of false dependency on things. The second week’s mountaintop urges us to deeply personal prayer with God so that we can see goodness and glory even in moments of suffering. This third week’s temple reminds us that true holiness never stops in acts of self-discipline, as helpful as those may be nor in acts of prayer and worship, as necessary as those are. Rather, true holiness reaches out in acts of love and justice toward all those in our lives, especially those most in need, and that is the true meaning of almsgiving.


Fr. Dave

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