Lent in Four Lines
User's Guide to Sunday, Feb. 22
Sunday, Feb. 22, is the First Sunday of Lent (Year B).
Genesis 9:8-15, Psalm 25:4-9, 1 Peter 3:18-22, Mark 1:12-15
Today’s Gospel is deceptively short. But it packs a lot into its four lines, especially coming after the first readings.
Line 1: “The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for 40 days, tempted by Satan.”
This first line is the most important. It puts Lent in the context of our baptismal vocation.
Jesus has just been baptized and declared God’s “beloved Son” when the Spirit drives him into the desert. There, his life becomes a microcosm of what every Christian’s life is: exposed in the desert of the world, tempted by sin.
The earlier readings in Mass give even more context to the line as a reference to baptism. Noah’s Ark in the first reading is used by St. Peter in the second reading is used to explain baptism. An ark saved Noah — “Baptism saves you now.”
Why does baptism save you now? Because Jesus Christ has suffered and died for us, says St. Peter, and baptism allows us to enter into that new Passover. That is also in this line — the new Passover. The 40 days of Jesus in the desert are a clear image of Israel’s 40 years in the desert as they escaped slavery from the Egyptians.
So what is the message for us? We should use Lent to escape slavery to sin by becoming more conformed to our baptism in Jesus, the Victorious One. And that’s just the first line.
Line 2: “He was among wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him.”
Here is another reference to Noah, who, of course, had to be among wild beasts and (as St. Peter points out in the second reading) also had mysterious, dark interactions with fallen angels (the strange Russell Crowe Noah movie is never stranger than when it shows those “spirits in prison” that Peter refers to in today’s second reading).
But Noah isn’t the only Old Testament figure shown to be friendly with wildlife and angels. Among others: Adam before the Fall was the master-namer of the animals and was prey to the fallen angel Satan; Jonah had an important relationship with a whale; and Daniel had a fortunate relationship with lions in their den and a protective angel.
This is what mighty prophets do: They survive encounters with wild beasts through God’s protection. But Jesus was greater than a prophet, as the next line shows.
Line 3: “After John had been arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the Gospel of God: ‘This is the time of fulfillment.’”
This Gospel kicking off Lent does not focus just on the 40 days in the desert that we are imitating.
It speaks of a significant event in the life of Christ: the arrest of John, the greatest of the prophets, which draws Jesus into a public ministry that is utterly different from John’s. John proclaimed Christ; Jesus proclaims “the Gospel.”
In the same way, our Lent is not about us — it isn’t a spiritual body-building program. It is an opportunity to pray to become better friends of Jesus, fast to become more docile to Jesus and to give alms to be more generous like Jesus. And thus we will be more able to spread the Gospel.
Line 4: Jesus says: “The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the Gospel.”
And there you have the mission statement of Lent.
The acceptable time is now. The time of God’s kingdom is now. It is time to repent and deepen our faith, to really work at it, now.
The time to start is right now.
Tom and April Hoopes write from Atchison, Kansas,
where Tom is writer in residence at Benedictine College.