Jesus is just back from the Jordan River, where he has received John’s baptism. God only knows why. He certainly did not have anything to repent of. Why was he there? Perhaps it is that he could do no less. He had to be there, with his people - with us - in all that embarrasses and burdens us, our regrets and our failures, all our soggy truth. Jesus has immersed himself in all of it. Only the passion of his love can explain his desire for baptism or any other one of his actions for that matter. Jesus perfectly expresses this determination of God to “share unreservedly”1 in our distress, to be with us in everything. Never distance or separateness but immersion and identification with us, so that we might know ourselves holy and beloved like him, through him. Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us.
My mother often spoke of my grandmother, sitting at the kitchen table reading the soldiers’ obituaries in the newspaper night after night during the Second World War, reading and sobbing. My mother would say, “Mama, you don’t even know who these boys are.” Grandma’s response, “Yes, but they are some mothers’ sons.” Identification and compassion. The brilliant logic of love.
So it is that Jesus is “driven” - literally pushed out - by the Spirit out to the wilderness to further immerse himself in our reality. And we find him this morning weakened by fasting and terribly lonely with only wild beasts as company. In this most vulnerable condition, he is tested by the evil one, tempted to give it all up and misuse his power. Satan desperately wants Christ Jesus to deny the self-forgetful love that he enfleshes, the love that will lead to his self-emptying even unto an excruciating death on the cross. This is tempting for Jesus, as we know from his later struggle in Gethsemane, but the Father’s will is always irresistible for him.
Today’s account from the Gospel of Mark is a conflation or even an abridgment of the longer temptation stories in the other gospels. And here again, the battle lines are set. It’s been building for thirty or so years; the evil one is fed up. Satan is itching for a fight. “Just show them who you really are. Just be divine. Why pretend you’re powerless? Why bother? C’mon, show us your stuff. Just be God; leave me to take care of the mess down here, and you get back to heaven.” The incarnation drives Satan crazy, for he knows it is his undoing - God and our flesh forever one. If only God would just stay in heaven if only Christ would leave the earth as Satan’s domain. If only God would deny this humanity – the incessant towardness of his love for us, enfleshed forever in Christ Jesus our Lord. If only….
It is the cross that will be his final answer to Satan. For on the cross, God will let himself be murdered for our freedom from all accusations against us, and death will die in him. With quiet trust and obedience to the Father, Jesus will contend with evil in weakness and vulnerability.2 And confront Satan not with a divine lightning bolt “but with his frail human nature, empowered by the Spirit.”3 The accuser doesn’t have a chance, knows it and he’s frightened to death.
And this morning we witness Jesus’ rejection of self-sufficiency; he is grounded in relationality; he belongs to the Father, and so to us, to whom the Father has sent him. His will is not his own; he has come to do the will of the One who sent him. And his temptation by the accuser is to be other than He is, God with us, God for us, God’s Beloved Son. Our temptations are perhaps a zillion variations on a similar theme - to be other than who we are - dearly beloved children of God.
Why do I continue to feel that relentless desire to have it my way, to resist and rebel? Why shouldn’t I. Jesus has somehow experienced it all and looked it straight in the eye - that demoralizing pull toward what entices, even as I realize it’s not right – that narrow place where we are tempted to be other than our truest selves, to live a lie and do the opposite. It is there that I see my heart is divided, pulled in opposite directions; I see that I am a sham. But that small embarrassing corner is a place where we can encounter him. We might want to ask, “Jesus what are you doing here?” His response, “Where else would I be?”
Jesus He is very close to us in temptation. He cannot bear to have us go through it alone. And if we remember what it was like to have a friend simply sit by our side in illness or adversity, or come to offer us help when we were exhausted and say simply, “Please, tell me what I can do to help?” If we can remember how that transformed everything, then we get a tiny glimpse of what Jesus’ solidarity with us truly means. Identification and compassion.
Ultimately there is a hard grace offered to us in all of our temptations – the invitation to arrive at this place of utter helplessness and depend completely on Christ’s power working through our weakness. But we must be willing to reject the stubborn “misconception that we can be truly human without overcoming ourselves, without the suffering of renunciation and the hardship” of loss of self-sufficiency. Unfortunately, we may have been misled into believing that we could avoid “the patient endurance required by (this) endless tension” between what we should be and what we truly are.4
Like Jesus, we live with beasts, our own inner demons, but we too have angels ministering to us, if we dare notice. We are day in day out persecuted, beguiled, and tempted but never, never abandoned for we carry about in ourselves the dying of Jesus, so that his resurrection may also be revealed in us. This is our hard and beautiful destiny, our baptismal truth. We are in Christ. He is himself the Ark in whom we are being carried home safely to the bosom of our Father. He who is our refuge in all temptation is tempted today and is sovereign and victorious to reveal to us our power as members of his Body. We are majestic even in our fragility and our vulnerability because our flesh is his flesh. The Holy Communion we receive will make explicit once more this truth of our commingling with him.
1 Olivier Clément, The Roots of Christian Mysticism.
4 Pope Benedict XVI.
Duccio di Buoninsegna (c.1255 - c.1319), , 1308-1311, tempera on poplar panel (cradled), 17 x 18 1/8 in., The Frick Collection, New York.
This morning's homily for the First Sunday of Lent.