The Spirit drove him out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan. He was among wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him. (Mark 1:12-13)
The Lord Jesus fasted for forty days, sequestered from the world, totally isolated in the desert. In His solitude, He entered into spiritual combat with the Enemy of our human nature, the corruptor of creation.
Our first reading this Sunday reminds us about the covenant between God and Noah after the ancient flood. As we read in Genesis, when God Almighty had decided to flood the earth completely, He did so with divine sadness. He had made the world to be beautiful. But Satan had befouled the earth with so much sin and degradation that only a fresh start could get things back on-track.
The flood didn’t mean the obliteration of the earth. The same human race that God had created originally—and the same laws of nature, same animals, etc.–all would survive, and provide a new beginning, after the flood. But only one ark-full. One isolated, solitary ark, on the surface of an endless sea. Everything else had to be washed clean altogether.
Now, we Catholics love the world. We do not despise anything that God has made. We know that He made everything to thrive, to course with vigor, to flourish.
God made the cosmos—gave it a beginning. But not an end. He made the world to endure forever, as an eternal temple of His light. He even made the devil good, beautiful, powerful, vastly intelligent. God willed that Lucifer would endure forever as a vessel of divine glory.
Lucifer, however, willed otherwise. The Enemy wills destruction. And he wills the degradation of the world with such skill and such dexterity that the world, which we love, which belongs to eternity—this world, at one point, justly got submerged under an endless sea. God covered the earth with enough water to drown everyone and everything that didn’t make it onto the ark. Not because God wills destruction. But because Satan wills destruction so well. All his destruction had to be destroyed, so that life could thrive again.
I said we would focus on the first part of the gospel reading, instead of the second part, which we just read four weeks ago. But we have to consider the second part of the reading a little bit. We cannot just skip over the most decisively important reality of life, namely the Kingdom of God is at hand (Mark 1:15).
To begin Lent, we have to ask the question: Where do we find the Kingdom of God? In this world, or in another world? Here, or somewhere else?
The Lord Jesus went out into the ark of His total solitude for 40 days. He turned His back on the world, as if it were covered with an endless sea of water. Not because He hates the world that He made, but precisely because He loves it the way He does. He loves it enough not only to lay its foundations, but also to redeem it and make it new, even after the Enemy had laid waste to it.
We Catholics follow Christ into the ark of Lenten solitude, into the ark of self-denial. We turn our backs on things like ice-cream and champagne. We get into the ark of Lenten separation from the normal comforts of this earth.
The ark doesn’t have wifi or cable. The berths on the ark do not have featherbeds. But our Lenten observances do not involve self-loathing, nor world-hating. We get onto the ark of Lent for our own version of Christ’s divine reason for fasting during the original Lent.
We don’t hate ice-cream or champagne. At least I don’t. We don’t hate the world. We don’t hate ourselves.
But the fact of the matter is: The Enemy has enough power to just about ruin the world. He has enough power to just about ruin us. And He’s clever enough to ruin us with things so apparently innocuous as tvs, phones, ice-cream cones—even apparently harmless snacks, like donuts.
We do not undertake our Lenten penances with glee. God did not gleefully flood the earth in the days of Noah. God wouldn’t have flooded the earth at all, except He knew that, after forty days and forty nights of endless rain, He would set the rainbow in the clouds again. Everything would start fresh and happy, with all the creatures from the ark standing on the fertile ground. Birds singing and flowers starting to grow, like they had back in the Garden of Eden.
We undertake our Lenten penances because we love ourselves enough to hate how weak we can be. We love the world enough to hate how it can lead us to make big mistakes in it.
The world needs a big wash-down. We need a big wash-down.
The world will never grow into the Kingdom of God, unless we love it enough to turn our backs on it for 40 days. And we ourselves won’t make it to the divine Kingdom that this world will one day be, unless we deny ourselves and take up our crosses during Lent. With the same kind of loving courage that led the Lord Jesus Himself out into the desert.