Christianity has long had a fascination with the desert. The Bible treats the desert as a place of great transition: it is where the Israelites passed through on their way to the Promised Land, and in today’s Gospel it is where Christ goes for the period between his baptism and the beginning of his public ministry. As we wait for Easter Sunday (where we as well begin our public ministry anew), the Lenten season, especially this Sunday can be for us a time of training and preparation for said ministry.
This dynamic is captured in the Collect when the priest prays that “what we may strive to obtain from Thee by abstinence, we may obtain by good works.” Ash Wednesday emphasized that in order for our fasting to be fruitful; we had to fast spiritually as well as physically. Fasting from meat means nothing if we are still gossiping and lying about others. Likewise, the Collect tells us that for fasting to be fruitful, it must lead to outward action. Our fasting from meat is fruitful not only because we are also not swearing, but because in the place of profanity we are using speech to edify and build up, instead of tearing down. Fasting gives self-control to help battle against the desires of the flesh, but in place of such desires we should learn to see people for what they really are: a gift willed by God for another only through their vocation, whether it is the married or religious life.
When we replace those ill desires with virtuous behavior, we, like St. Paul in the first reading, “exhibit ourselves as the ministers of God.” St. Paul lists 27 different ways in which Christians exhibit themselves as ministers of God, and if anyone is looking for a place to begin their Lenten meditations, 1 Corinthians 6: 1-10 would be a great location. For today, we will only note that St. Paul’s exhortation to Christians is to be active disciples. While Lent might be a time where we retreat inward via fasting and mortification, it is so we can receive the strength to go back out in public an even stronger witness.
When we read the Tract (Psalm 90) this imagery of action continues. The righteous need not fear arrows flying at them or the terror of night, but that does not mean they will not be present. God protects us from them precisely because we will be right in their presence. Far too often in Catholicism today, especially amongst traditionalist circles, is the temptation to flee the world at every opportunity. That’s not what God wants out of us. While he doesn’t want us to adopt worldly ideas and thinking, we are going to be in the world. We have forty days of Lent because the soul needs to occasionally retreat, but that retreat is to always prepare an even stronger advance.
This method of retreat is best understood by Jesus in today’s Gospel. After His baptism, he immediately heads to the desert in fasting and discipline, so as to prepare for his public ministry. In this preparation, the devil comes to Him to tempt Him. He offers him several easy fixes to Christ’s ministry. Do them, and there will be no need for ministry. Feed everyone from the stones on the ground. Wow people by plunging from the highest of heights and suffer not a scratch. Acquire all the temporal powers of the earth, all of these things are shortcuts from the Cross and Christ’s mission to save sinners. The hungry and well-fed alike need salvation. Far from mysterious wonders, saving sinners is a grisly business, where you put in long hours of tireless evangelization, deal with a ton of insults, fall flat on your face, and often appear to fail, just as Christ appeared to fail on the cross. While politics speaks of tradeoffs, there are no tradeoffs in the Gospel, you must preach without ceasing.
Christ went into the desert as a way of helping us to see these things. When we leave the desert, we have to be prepared, like he was, for martyrdom. If the highest calling is our calling, we had better ready ourselves for it in every way possible. Part of that preparation is seeing temptation for what it is: the easy way out that is never fulfilling. Lent helps us do that by teaching our appetites to learn self-control, and that small bit of self-control can go a long way when we are out in the world giving the Gospel. Once “purified of our former ways”, such disciplines, when combined with the Sacraments, help us to “join the company of the redeemed.” (Postcommunion)