I thank all who have joined with us spiritually in this celebration of the Eucharist during the Divine Mercy Conference of 2021. While we are apart, we are together in prayer.
Mark’s account of Jesus’ time of fasting in the desert is deceptively simple. He says very little: Jesus “remained in the wilderness for forty days, and was tempted by Satan” (Mark 1:12). “The wilderness location is emphasised by being mentioned twice within six words, and despite the fact that Jesus was already in the wilderness where John was baptising” (Eugene Boring). For the people of the Bible, the wilderness was a place that was rich in meaning. The wilderness is hard to endure. All external props are removed—no entertainment, no diversion. Silence and solitude. The Jewish people knew that from their journey of forty years in the wilderness. The wilderness was the place of confrontation—where the people were confronted with their limits and fears, where the encountered both the powers of darkness, and the presence of God.
To be brought into the wilderness, is to be brought into a place where we must discover what is essential, where the irrelevant is stripped away and the vital becomes apparent, where the truth in our hearts is revealed. In the wilderness, choices became clearer.
Just as God led the Israelites through the desert on the long journey to the Promised Land, and the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness, so the Spirit brings us into wilderness places too. The person of faith discerns God’s hand, and God’s way through the desert. Without faith, that is trust in God and God’s project, the desert is a disaster, and one wants to return to what one knew… the place of slavery, a place without hope. For Jesus the wilderness became the place of his deepening commitment to the will of his Father and to the mission he was about to undertake–proclaiming the Good News of the Reign of God. And he would return to it again and again.
The wilderness is the place where—in the power of the Spirit—Jesus savours the Mercy of his Father. In the wilderness we come to realise that “God points his finger at no one, but rather opens his arms to embrace us.” (Pope Francis, Ash Wednesday 2021). The wilderness is the place where mercy is savoured; it is the place where mercy comes to maturity. But like faith, our embrace of mercy must grow. It is not a static reality.
In the wilderness, Jesus “was tempted by Satan.” In addition to the outward struggle for life, there came the inner struggle about what was happening to him. Today we tend to think of seductive allurements, unhealthy attachments, and of nothing else. While these certainly exist, and they are not easy to fight against, other struggles may strike deeper: those of meaningless and despair, of boasting and being in control—and finally the most radical temptation of all, that of turning away from God.
St Mary does not tell us of Jesus’s trials in the desert. But he does tell us that Jesus withstood them, and he did so not simply for himself, but also on our behalf. As it says in the Letter to the Hebrews, “because Jesus himself was tested through what he suffered… he is able to help those who are being tested” (2:18). In the wilderness, heaven came down to comfort earth. Jesus was trying to help us, not just with fine words, but by taking our struggle upon himself, by entering into the difficulties of our lives from within. As Gregory of Nazianzen (329-390) realised so long ago: only that which Christ takes on can be healed (Epistle 101). He can heal us and help us only if he shares our humanity, if he knows our frailty first-hand, and that we can succumb too easily to temptation. Jesus took up the fight for us, and he was victorious.
Jesus begins his saving mission by announcing Good News, and by calling to repentance. “Repent, and believe the Good News.” Repentance, or a second look at life, is the seeking of the Lord in the desert. Christ does this not only at the first stage of his journey—as we hear in today’s Gospel, and on Calvary—the last stage, he does it all through life. He chooses the desert. Two Sundays ago, we heard how Jesus gets up and goes into the desert to pray early in the morning Mark 1:35, 5th Sunday of Lent). In prayer we go into the desert with Christ, our Lord and our brother. We discover the desert as a place of repentance, and therefore of mercy and the forecourt of the Resurrection, the place of the Bread from Heaven (Manna), and water from the Rock. “Have mercy on me O God in your kindness…” (Ps 50). Mercy is but another name for God. We cannot comprehend God without his mercy. Mercy is not a quality of God but a manifestation of the Lord, how God is present to us. God is mercy, God treats us mercifully, by that mercy we become empowered to practice mercy, and by receiving mercy we can, and we must, then, go and do likewise.
Jesus begins his saving mission by announcing Good News, and by calling to repentance. Repentance means letting our hearts be changed, turning away from sin and turning towards our sisters and brother, and turning towards God. That type of change takes time. Repentance takes time. “Lent is a School of Repentance. In its liturgy and by its practices and prayer, Lent teaches us what repentance is, and how to acquire the spirit of repentance” (Alexander Schmemann). To borrow the powerful words of Amanda Gorman, repentance is about being “brave enough to see” the light, “brave enough to be it” (The Hill We Climb).
The Good News is that the mercy of God “excludes no one” (Pope Francis, Letter, 1st September 2015).” Lent—in its prayer and liturgy – brings us along the path of faith, reminds us that God waits with infinite mercy and brings us in reunion with the One who can change and transform our lives. Lent is not just the next forty days but it “is a journey that involves our whole life, our entire being” (Ash Wednesday, 2021).
The beginning of the return to God is the recognition of our need for Him and His mercy. You cannot earn God’s grace. In our life everything is gift, it is all mercy. But we need the humility to welcome God’s mercy and love. Today’s first and second readings, along with the responsorial psalm, call to mind God’s covenant — God’s promise to be always with the world and never abandon it. God “does not want anyone to be lost. His mercy is infinitely greater than our sins, his medicine is infinitely stronger than our illnesses that He has to heal” (Pope Francis, The Name of God is Mercy, p 334).
Lent offers us a graced opportunity to re-evaluate and readjust our relationship with God. To do this well, we need to spend some time in the wilderness, in some barren place devoid of excessive comforts and social distractions. Traditional Lenten practices can help us do that: a more focused effort at personal prayer; healthy acts of self-sacrifice that awaken our hunger for God and our solidarity with the millions of hungry people in our world; the gift of our time and treasure to the poor and others in need; the commitment to work at reconciliation in strained or broken relationships.
Six weeks from now, at our celebration of Easter, we will publicly renew our baptismal vows and be blessed with the Easter water, a sign of new life in Christ. During this time of preparation, may we gaze on the cross of Christ, gaze upon the one who knew life’s wilderness first-hand. Let us see in the outstretched arms of Jesus Christ, who is “the face of the Father’s mercy”, the singular sign of his love for us, his undying commitment to us. May this Lent be a season of grace for each of us, a time to renew our covenant with God and with the people to whom we are committed. In these days of Lent may we never cease to pray that his Kingdom may come, that justice and mercy be done, and that our lives may bear witness to a God of mercy.