Lent and Pentecost have something in common: the Holy Spirit. We think of Pentecost as the time of the coming of the Spirit with all his wonderful gifts and graces, but of Lent as all this drudgery about giving things up and pessimism about sin and penance, feeling bad and guilty …. or however else you might care to characterize if not caricature Lent!
Yet, the Gospel today gives us the picture of Jesus driven – and that’s a strong word! – by the Spirit into the desert. The same word, driven, is used when Jesus is later himself casting out, driving out, evil spirits from the possessed. It literally means that he throws them out! It is a command that can’t be resisted. It’s the impelling, the compelling of the evil spirit to be gone. So, it is this same thing which the Holy Spirit is doing to Jesus: he is impelling, compelling, throwing him out into the desert, for forty days (alluding to the forty years of Israel in the desert being tested by God), to be tempted by the Evil One, Satan.
Now, we pray in the Our Father, “lead us not into temptation”: but here it is! The Spirit is driving Christ into temptation. So, why would the Spirit do that? Why would the third Person of the Trinity drive the second Person of the Trinity to be tempted to sin against the first Person of the Trinity?
We need here to recall what happened just before this scene. It was the baptism of Jesus in the river Jordan by John the Baptist. If you recall, Jesus comes from Nazareth in Galilee, the carpenter’s son, an ordinary “bloke” in the perception of those around him. But both Jesus and John know that there is much more going on here. When he goes into the waters of repentance, Jesus is taking on symbolically the guilt and sin of the world and drowning them in the waters. It’s a foretelling of what he will do in truth and reality on the Cross.
When he comes up from the water, the Father testifies to him as the Son and sends the Spirit upon him as a dove. By driving him out into the desert, the Spirit is leading Jesus to accept and confirm in his humanity what he had already accepted to do in his divinity: to defeat Satan and sin and therefore the power of death, sickness, possession and of all other evil. It’s the Trinity “working into” the humanity of Jesus the acceptance of the mission he had already embraced before his incarnation.
So, what has that to do with you and me? A huge amount.
Many years ago for most of us, we, too, were baptised – not in the waters of the Jordan, but in the waters of the death and resurrection of Christ. By the sacrament of baptism, the Spirit of God was poured out upon, in and throughout our whole being. In Lent, what is happening is that those quiet and calm waters of baptism which have been gurgling and murmuring in the depths of our heart and soul, quietly fertilising our daily lives with the graces of charity, faith and hope, prayer and self-sacrifice: these waters want to rise up like a geyser, in a storm, and saturate us again with the power of the Holy Spirit.
And so, the Holy Spirit, in Lent, is also going to drive us into temptation so that we can confirm again and again by our resistance to that temptation, by our victory over the temptations of Satan, that we have accepted the Spirit of God and that we are one with Christ. Therefore, when it comes to the Easter Vigil or Easter Sunday when we renew our baptismal promises, and when we are asked by the priest: “do you renounce Satan and all his works and empty promises and the fascination of evil?”, we can give a resounding “I do” because during Lent we have actually proven that we do!
That is what Lent is about. It is about recapturing the freshness, the vitality, the vigour of our baptism, the origin of our Christian identity. We proclaim this aloud and publicly in our lives. We demonstrate that we have embraced and keep embracing the reality of our baptism which is the reality of the God to whom we belong.
So, Lent is not just about giving up this or that – all of which is good to do. Rather it is about being aware that the bigger context of that is our graced, Christian, baptised identity. The grace of baptism is a permanent underground river. Lent is the opportunity God gives us to reassert our fundamental Christian identity, to bring up to the surface the waters of baptism and let them pour out of us as we live a more and more authentic Christian life.
What are the temptations of Lent going to be? They will correspond to the graces of our baptism! There are three chief graces I will mention.
First, when we are baptised we are personally liberated from all sin. The grace of baptism washes them all away. The first temptation is going, then, to be to get dirty again. The way the Spirit wants us to fight back against this is through fasting. Fasting is about being free from sin. We symbolize it in not eating this or that, but the fundamental meaning of fasting is that we want to regain and keep that pristine, beautiful, clear and crystal holiness of life given to us in baptism. We want rid of what gets in the way of that. That is why the sacrament of confession is so important in Lent because it restores to us the grace of the integrity of our baptism.
The second area of temptation is going to be in our relationship with God, since baptism makes us sons and daughters of God the Father, it makes us temples of the Holy Spirit, it makes us brothers and sisters and members of the Mystical Body of Christ. Temptations during Lent in this area will seek to put enmity between ourselves and God, to marginalise or side-line God. There will be temptations seeking to diminish our faith, hope and love for God, to make us apathetic and indifferent to our religious commitments, to question the validity and realism of our faith, to cast God in the role of being our arch-enemy (as Satan successfully did in the case of Adam and Eve) and as being jealous of his own power and against any attempts on our part to try and take over from him. A big temptation in Lent will be to assert yourself over against God, in small and big ways. And that is why prayer is so important in Lent as the antidote to these temptations. Both private and public prayer and worship keep us before God as the only Holy One, the only One to be adored, the One before whom we know who we really are and without whom we simply go mad.
The third area is our relationship with one another. Baptism inserts us into that living communion and community of the Body of Jesus, the Church. The Spirit wants us to resist temptations against that communion by means of almsgiving. This is not just a matter of giving money, but of giving of yourself in the myriad ways which love of neighbour opens up. Almsgiving is a fundamental relationship of benevolence to others, of self-sacrifice, compassion and kind-heartedness. The temptations will be to selfishness, isolation, non-cooperation, unavailability to others. Suspicion and judgmental-ity will also seek to insinuate themselves.
So, Lent is bound to be a time when you are attacked on all fronts. Satan is well aware that the Spirit is reinforcing the graces of your baptism in Lent. The Spirit wants you to respond to this input of grace in order to reassert your choice of God and your rejection of Satan. Hence, we are on the battle-front in Lent! To hold on, to reaffirm, to reassert and choose God and constantly to redefine ourselves as followers of Jesus Christ, as believers in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, as members of the Church of Christ, as sent by Jesus Christ to bring the power and love of the Trinity to the world so that it may be healed and liberated from the deception and fascination of evil which so easily cling to human beings when they are not with God.
Therefore get into battle-gear. Don’t be apathetic. Garfield the Cat would yawn if a nuclear explosion occurred: don’t be like him during Lent. Don’t yawn your way through it and into mediocrity if not worse. Be active, pro-active and not just reactive. Respond to the grace that is pouring out on you; act out that grace and not your own ego. Ask the Spirit to make you feel the sparkle and freshness of the grace of baptism. Let your Lent be a time of great renewal for yourself, your relationships, your parish, and all because the Spirit drives you into the desert to be tempted by Satan and then return with Jesus to proclaim that the time has come, the Kingdom is close at hand, repent and believe the Gospel.