Summary: Prayer, fasting and tithing are little gifts we give so that God's power can fill up our weakness.
First Sunday in Lent 2015
“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel.” These words of Jesus, recorded by St. Mark for the Church at Rome, conclude the shortest of the accounts of Christ’s forty day retreat in the wilderness near Jericho. It was a battle, those five and a half weeks, a battle with hunger and thirst, with the constant threat of hostile wildlife, and with the constant human enemy, the Adversary. St. Peter calls him a raging lion, looking for someone to devour. But Jesus was the Son of God, the conqueror of our ancient adversary. And, lest we forget, Jesus faced that enemy after being baptized by John the Baptist. John’s baptism was a mere symbol of repentance. But the baptism of Jesus changed forever the meaning and consequence of that Jewish ritual. So, as St. Peter explains today, the baptism of Jesus now saves us.
Since this is the season of preparation for baptism–we have over a dozen eager catechumens and candidates preparing for reception into the Church on Holy Saturday–let’s reflect on what that sacrament is, and what it does. Every sacrament is an action of Jesus Christ, our divine Lord. Baptism changed with the baptism, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus because everything changed with the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. That’s why we date every event “anno Domini,” in the year of Our Lord. When Jesus stood in the water and John poured water over His head, the water did not change our sinless Lord. Instead, Jesus’s presence now empowers the waters of Baptism, mingled with the blood and water from His pierced side, to change us. The word “baptism” means in one translation “immersion,” but it really means “saturation.” When we are baptized into Jesus Christ, we are saturated with His life, with His Spirit. Here in South Texas we have a better word for baptism. I call it being marinated in Christ. We are so soaked with Christ that after the long process of growth and suffering and change we call our Christian life on earth, we are other Christs. And, being so like Christ in our virtues and works, we can attract others to Christ and His Church.
Christ was tempted by the devil. Matthew and Luke give an extended treatment of the temptations, but Mark, summarizing Matthew, simply says he was tempted by Satan. “Satan” means adversary, and the Christians of Rome knew well what that meant. It meant, on a secular level, scoundrels like Claudius–who threw them out of Rome–and Nero. Nero fancied himself an entertainer. He was the last relative of Julius Caesar to be emperor. He loved to put on spectacles, and, whenever he was in trouble, he also loved to blame the Christians. So to light up his arena at night, he would arrest Christians and turn them into human torches. The ones who escaped the wild beasts of the arena. Yes, the Church at Rome did not need any elaboration on the themes of temptation, adversary, and wild beasts.
Faced with these perils, and understanding well what the next three years of constant teaching and healing and suffering would entail, Jesus let Himself driven by His own Spirit, the Spirit of love, into the desert. He needed time to prepare, to enter into the embrace of His Father, to face every temptation of humanity and to conquer them. There, in the caves and thorny wasteland, He gave over all the weakness He felt as a human to His all-powerful Father, and there, to marinate Himself in divine Love. In His human weakness, divine power reached perfection. From there He would go to Galilee to preach and baptize, to Cana to work His first miracle, to Mount Tabor to be revealed in glory to His key disciples, and to Jerusalem to suffer and die and rise again.
We have been given a great gift, a gift of time, of kairos–God’s time. It is time to feel our human weakness and our need for divine power. Three little gifts are asked, are really required, from our hands. They are the three tiny acts of submission that become the keys to unlock the infinite resources of divine power in our lives, power to live as Christ, to teach as Christ, to suffer as Christ, and to evangelize as Christ.
The first gift we give is prayer. But it’s really God’s big gift to us that enables our little gift. We must spend more time in prayer, in lectio divina, in reflection and repentance and praise and petition. Whatever clock time we give in prayer, in reading the psalms and hymns of the Church, in meditation, whatever clock time becomes God’s time, a window into eternity. There God’s healing and comfort and energy becomes ours.