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First Sunday of Lent

“The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert…. He was among wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him.” Mk. 1:13

Some time ago, I had the delightful experience of being with a group of priests who were all retired. Each of them would be recognized as outstanding ministers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

One of them, who was then quite elderly and used a walker to get around, was noted for being an extremely kind, soft-spoken, humble type who always found something grand in every person he met. He was also a priest who never grabbed the spotlight for himself, but continually seemed to find a way to deflect attention elsewhere.

Until a certain matter was brought up.

For the sake of this story, let’s call this priest “Mike,” to maintain his anonymity. Before my spending some time with him, another priest was telling me what a star football player ol’ Mike was “back in the day.” This took me completely by surprise because I never heard this saintly priest say anything like this about himself.
So, when several of us gathered together for luncheon some time ago, I asked Mike if these football stories about him were true. He immediately lit up and rather passionately returned to his “glory days” by telling us how he could “do it all”: run, pass, and kick – the three most important football achievements. To use his words, he ended his somewhat breathless tale by proudly and enthusiastically saying: “I was a three-peat!”

He had us all folded over with laughter as he continued his consistent reprise of “I was a three-peat!”

I got thinking of this while reading today’s two-sentence gospel reading. What it made me reflect on was that Mark presents his entire story of Jesus in much the same way. He speaks of Jesus essentially as being a “three-peat:” a teacher, a preacher, and an exorcist.

But today’s first sentence from Mark is all about telling us what happened to Jesus before he ventured into his “three-peat” mission of spreading the good news of God’s immeasurable grace.

What Mark is sharing with us today is that before any of that could happen, Jesus first had to undergo a testing in the “wilderness.” He had to withstand a whole series of temptations to see whether he would be able to remain a fully committed reflection of his Father.

These temptations are the “wild beasts” that today’s reading speaks of – beasts fully intent on tearing Jesus away from the mission of grace that he knew he was called to carry out.

Every one of us has encountered at least one of these “wild beasts” in our life. And every one of us knows in our hearts just how seductive and how compelling and how ferocious these beasts can be. 

What’s unusual about Mark’s presentation is how brief it is – just a little more than one sentence!

Matthew and Luke, for example, tell the very same story, but in far greater detail. Their accounts tell of Satan himself taking Jesus up on to a high mountain and showing him all the kingdoms of the world – the kingdoms of wealth and glory and power. They tell of how it could all be his if only Jesus would bow down and worship the gods of this world.

None of that is here in the passage we just read in Mark.

What is here though is the reality of how powerful and how captivating temptation can be – for all of us. In fact, it’s almost as though Mark knows the reader is already very familiar with all the attractions and lures the world offers.

And so, instead of spelling it all out, it’s almost as though he expects the reader – you and me – to use this blank space to fill in our own personal experiences of dealing with the ruthlessness of temptation.

For example, how are you enticed to veer from the path of what is right and good and true in your life? How do you handle the appeal of privilege and power? How do you come to terms with the desire for fame and fortune, for attention and affirmation, for the longing to dominate others, for the incessant need to seek revenge and nourish hatred and dismiss societal misfits?

In other words, which one of the “wild beasts” do you have to do battle with inside your own heart?

But also notice something else: this little more than one sentence story doesn’t end with beasts. It ends with the presence of “angels” that “ministered to him.” In other words, God did not leave Jesus alone to fend with the beasts all by himself. Abba, God the Father, was always present to him in the form of “angels.”

The same is true for each of us. We are not alone. We are not left to fight the “wild beasts” all by ourselves. We have “angels” in our lives, too.

We have each other. We have the community of the Church. We have the Gospels. We have the great sacraments of Eucharist and Reconciliation. We have our own conscience formed by our parents and our spouses and our whole family tradition. We have the promise of our God that he is Emmanuel, God with us – a God whose most dominant characteristic is compassion: a God who feels with us, who suffers with us, who wrestles beasts with us.  

Those same “angels” that ministered to Jesus are always ready to do the same for each one of us.

The season of Lent, in fact, is designed by the Church specifically to help us remember this. It’s also there to encourage each of us to become “three-peats”: people renowned for listening to the words of incomparable grace that Jesus brings us; people honored for preaching the Good News of mercy and hope to those who are the lepers of today’s society; people famous for mirroring in our own lives that of Jesus himself.

The Good News of great joy for each of us will be our ability at the end of our journey on this earth to be able to say loudly and triumphantly along with ol’ Mike:
“I was a three-peat!”

I listened. I preached. I mirrored.

Ted Wolgamot, Psy.D.

Art by Jim Matarelli
Sister Rachel’s Quote of the Week

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