“The time has come…….the kingdom of God is close at hand. Repent and believe the Good News.” Mk. 1: 15
My choice of text and indeed the Gospel reading itself you may think was more fitting for last Wednesday. None the less, each year of the three year cycle the Church sees it fitting that on Ash Wednesday we consider Jesus’ teaching on the principal of fasting and abstinence reserving the forty days he spent in the wilderness for the following Sunday.
Firstly, this enables the preacher to reflect on other periods of forty such as the days Noah spent in the Ark while the rains flooded the earth or the years that Moses led the people of Israel through the wilderness. Each of these ended of course with God’s glory being revealed as the merciful redeemer of a penitent people. Secondly it serves as a salutary reminder that on Ash Wednesday an equally penitent people have entered a period of preparation to celebrate God’s greatest sign of his redemption of fallen humanity.
While, as in other incidents Mark’s account of the temptation of Our Lord in the wilderness is short of the detail recorded by Matthew and Luke, I believe for us this year, in particular, it has deep significance. Let us first remind ourselves that each writer agrees that it was the Holy Spirit who led Jesus to this ordeal. For Mark this is the third stage of announcing who Jesus is – remember there has been no infancy narrative – simply the preaching of John the Baptist, the baptism of Jesus and now from temptation his return from the wilderness declares exactly who he is – the suffering servant of Isaiah in the words of the first letter of Peter, the one who: -
“innocent, though he was, died once for our sins, died for the guilty, to lead us to God.”
But as I said there is a further significance for us now in the second year of Coronavirus restrictions. As I have said to you before the wilderness has to be seen to be believed, those who heard Jesus knew of it and perhaps we can sympathise with their association of the wilderness as a lonely place where one had to fight for survival, cut off from loved ones.
I believe it is of great significance that when we feel the pains of lockdown we can first remember that Jesus has been there before us and then offer each day in thanksgiving for the fact that he further walks with us as a fellow pilgrim, because in his time in the wilderness he faced the demons of mortality – the fear of vulnerability and the inevitability of death.
Now we are at the heart of this annual period of preparation for Easter with its calls to Fasting, abstinence and almsgiving. Saint John Henry Newman exhorted his Oratorians in these words of encouragement: -
“Come my brethren, at this time, before the solemn days are present, let us review some of the privations of the Son of God made man, which should be your meditation through these holy weeks.” (Parochial and Plain Sermons VI 4)
We should further note the passage from Genesis to which I have already referred coming after Noah had been shut up with his family and the animals, for it too, reflects acknowledged vulnerability for though not separated from loved ones Noah had entered the Ark in faith but not aware of what times lay ahead. As ‘The Living Word’ puts it: -
“Perhaps like Noah, we can not fully understand what real freedom looks like until we experience vulnerability.”
Thus, it is the Church, each year asks us to spend time looking within ourselves, to make ourselves vulnerable as we confront our fears and temptations yet not without reminding us that we are not being asked to do anything less than was asked of Jesus. Lent is not only about giving up sweets or alcohol, nor about extra prayer and meditation, but using such disciplines to realign ourselves with Jesus and his dedication to his father’s will. The Father who strengthens his son in the wilderness is the same God who renews his promise made to an unfaithful people and is bound with them for ever.
This is the Good News Mark is announcing in the return of Jesus from the wilderness. This is the Good News that guarantees that we have nothing to fear. even if we are called to turn around.
“The time has come…….the kingdom of God is close at hand. Repent and believe the Good News.”
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