A couple of times over the past 10 years, I have been “driven out into the desert.”
Literally driven – as a passenger. The first time was on vacation, visiting America’s desert southwest. The second time, on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
And I couldn’t help but think about both of those encounters as I pondered the Gospel story we are given on the First Sunday of Lent. The evangelist Mark doesn’t provide many details about Jesus’ trek, only this:
The Spirit drove Jesus 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.
That part about “forty days” sure caught my attention. On my trips into the desert, something like “forty minutes” seemed to be plenty – more than adequate. (Nor does it surprise me in the least that Jesus displays quite a bit more fortitude and endurance than I could imagine mustering myself.)
But the more I thought about Jesus’ extended immersion in this arid oblivion, the more I wondered “why?” After all, he has no need of penance or purification. What’s the point, then, of his heading out into the wasteland? To grow closer to God? Even that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense: How can Jesus (who is God)…grow any closer to God?
I guess one of the blessings of having myself been driven out into the desert is that I know first-hand that there’s really not much to see there. The world is stripped down to its bare bones. Even hardy lifeforms struggle to survive amongst the stone and sand. And as for the weak-kneed among us – well, we can’t wait to get back on the bus.
Still, take note that one creature seems to thrive in this uninviting landscape: Satan. Even Jesus encounters the Evil One on multiple occasions over the course of 40 days.
So perhaps that’s at least part of the answer to my question: Why does Jesus head into the desert? To show us that Satan is real…that Satan is active…and that Satan will keep trying to have his way, even (or especially) in a place of desolation.
Fortunately, Jesus also provides the antivenom for Satan’s lies. As St. Paul observes,
…though [Christ Jesus] was in the form of God, [he] did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave…becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.
Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth.
Yes, Satan may be on the prowl…seeking to disrupt our best intentions throughout these 40 days. But in the end, Satan is powerless when we embrace Jesus’ example in the desert…and when we are then driven to “confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
Let us pause now…to recall that we are in the presence of the Holy & Merciful One.