This Sunday, Lent in 64 Words
This Sunday, we hear a “tweet of a Gospel,” but one that’s full of meaning.
I love the First Sunday of Lent — Jesus faces the devil in those three dramatic temptations: the bread, the temple, and “all the kingdoms of the world.”
If you’re expecting all of that in 2018, though — on the First Sunday of Lent, Year B — you will be disappointed. Instead you get a 64-word Gospel, Mark at his Markan briefest —a Gospel of 288 characters, not counting spaces. A Gospel barely longer than a single tweet.
But when you think about everything that is packed into this tweet of a Gospel, it opens up vistas of meaning.
First: Lent is when the Church sends you into the desert.
“The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for 40 days, tempted by Satan,” says the first 20 words.
Jesus has just been baptized and declared God’s “beloved Son” when the Spirit drives him out into 40 days alone in a bare, bleak place where he is exposed to the scary world, tempted by sin.
We, too, are driven into the desert of Lent by the Spirit — through the Church, without which, face it, we wouldn’t observe Lent at all. Here in Lent we have to battle with temptation for 40 days.
The only way to win is to stay safe with Jesus Christ, the Victorious One. He is our ark.
“Christ suffered for sins once, the righteous for the sake of the unrighteous,” writes St. Peter in the first reading, “that he might lead you to God.”
Second: Lent reminds us that we are animals served by angels.
“He was among wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him,” says the next 11 words.
The Gospel and the First Reading both give us stories of prophets who live with wild beasts.
In the story of Noah’s ark, God doesn’t just make a covenant with mankind. He makes a covenant with animalkind: “I am now establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you and with every living creature that was with you: all the birds, and the various tame and wild animals that were with you and came out of the ark.”
Jesus Christ came to us, exiled from heaven, to spend time with beasts — the wild ones, the tame ones, and us.
And as Noah was “saved through water,” writes St. Peter in the first reading. “This prefigured baptism, which saves you now.”
Baptism gives us the grace to separate ourselves from the other animals even more. At Lent we do just that by denying the animal appetites of our bodies to strengthen what we have in common with the angels — our reason and will.
Third, Lent isn’t about us.
Significantly, the Gospel on the First Sunday of Lent is not just about the 40 days of Jesus’s fast. It fast-forwards (no pun intended) to what happens next:
“After John had been arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the Gospel of God: ‘This is the time of fulfillment,’” say the next 20 words.
John lived with wild beasts to prepare the world for Christ; Jesus lived with wild beasts to prepare his heart for the world. John preached Christ; Jesus preaches “the Gospel.” When John got arrested, Jesus started a journey that would get him arrested, too.
The lesson? Lent isn’t what our Christian life is about. Lent is just a preparation for what our Christian life is about. Lent is not a self-perfection program. It is a “therapy” program where we use fasting, prayer and almsgiving to make us more like Jesus so that we can better spread his Gospel.
The Gospel ends with a mission statement for Lent and beyond.
The Gospel passage concludes with 13 words: “The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the Gospel.”
That is the mission statement of Lent. Time is short. Life will end. Our life, like our Lent, will be over before we know it. There is no point in waiting. There is nothing to wait for. The kingdom of God is ready now. The time to grasp it is now.
The Gospel takes 64 words to say: Stop waiting. Begin.