This Sunday is the first Sunday of Lent, and we read about events that occurred at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry.
Following his baptism, Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness—his own, personal equivalent of Lent.
It was a time of preparation for the beginning of his public preaching in Galilee.
Here are 9 things to know and share . . .
1) How does Mark describe what happens after Jesus is baptized?
In Mark 1:12, we encounter the puzzling statement, “The Spirit immediately drove him [Jesus] out into the wilderness.”
The fact that Jesus responds to the initiative of the Holy Spirit reveals the cooperation of the three Persons of the Trinity.
2) Why does Mark say that Jesus went into the wilderness? He was already in the wilderness, for he had come to John to be baptized (1:4-5).
The statement must mean that, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Jesus went even farther into the wilderness than had John, in the way Christianity surpasses the movement that John initiated. By going to a more remote place, Jesus removed himself even farther from corrupt society for an even greater encounter with God.
Jesus remains in the wilderness for forty days, a period that echoes the forty days Moses spent on the mountain (Exodus 34:28) as well as other periods of forty days or years in the Old Testament.
3) What is Jesus doing in the desert, and what can we learn from it?
Mark does not mention the fact that Jesus fasts while in the desert (Matthew and Luke supply that information), but it is clear that Jesus performs spiritual exercises in the desert. This is why the Holy Spirit brought him into the desert: He is on retreat to prepare for his ministry.
When we go on retreat in our own lives, we often find ourselves beset by distractions that pull us away from the encounter with God that we are seeking, and this is what happens here. While he is in the desert, Jesus is “tempted by Satan.”
Mark records only this basic fact—more information is provided by Matthew and Luke—but it is still an astonishing claim. Mark’s readers would certainly have wanted to know more about this if it was the first time they had encountered it. This suggests that it was not the first time—that they were already familiar with the incident, presumably from the preaching of Peter.
In his brief account of Jesus’ time in the desert, Mark also points out that Jesus “was with the wild beasts,” indicating the physical danger present in the wilderness and thus Jesus’ abandonment to and trust in his Father. This trust was not misplaced, as shown by the next thing Mark records: “the angels ministered to him.”
In the same way, we can trust God to provide what we need when we are surrounded by danger.
4) What does it mean for the devil to “tempt” Jesus? How could Jesus, who is all good, be tempted by the devil? Why would the devil even bother?
Sin is irrational, and so there is something irrational or disordered about what the devil does here. The question is: What is disordered?
It could be that the devil is trying to put pressure on Jesus out of sheer spite, without hoping to actually corrupt him. On the other hand, the devil may have the irrational arrogance to think that he could corrupt the infinitely holy Son of God.
5) Could we look at this event another way?
Yes. The Greek verb used here (peirazō) means not only tempt but also test. The devil can be seen as testing Jesus—putting pressure on Jesus to see whether it is possible to get him to give in to sin.
If the devil knows that it is impossible to get the Son of God to sin then, presumably, he would be doing it to find out if Jesus is the Son of God. By passing the test, Jesus shows that he is.
6) How else can we look at this event?
Some have viewed it as a recapitulation of prior events in salvation history. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explores this way of looking at the text:
“The evangelists indicate the salvific meaning of this mysterious event: Jesus is the new Adam who remained faithful just where the first Adam had given in to temptation. Jesus fulfills Israel’s vocation perfectly: in contrast to those who had once provoked God during forty years in the desert, Christ reveals himself as God’s Servant, totally obedient to the divine will. In this, Jesus is the devil’s conqueror: He ‘binds the strong man’ to take back his plunder (Mark 3:27). Jesus’ victory over the tempter in the desert anticipates victory at the Passion, the supreme act of obedience of his filial love for the Father” (CCC 539).
Similarly, St. John Paul II said:
“Jesus knew that he was sent by the Father to establish God’s kingdom in the world of humanity. On the one hand, for this purpose he accepted being tempted in order to take his proper place among sinners. He had already done this at the Jordan, in order to serve as a model for all (cf. St. Augustine, De Trinitate 4:13). But on the other hand, by virtue of the Holy Spirit’s anointing, he reached into the very roots of sin and defeated the one who is the ‘father of lies’ (John 8:44). Thus he willingly went to face the temptations at the start of his ministry, complying with the Holy Spirit’s impulse” (John Paul II, General Audience, July 21, 1990).
7) How does Jesus’ public ministry begin?
In Mark 1:14, Mark introduces the public ministry of saying that it happened “after John was arrested.”
This, again, seems to expect the audience to already know the story of John the Baptist. Mark does not even tell us who arrested John. (It was Herod Antipas, one of the sons of Herod the Great and the tetrarch of Galilee, as we learn in Luke 3:19-20).
Mark does recount what happened after John was arrested: “Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God.”
Since Herod was the ruler of Galilee, this was a daring move on Jesus’ part. He is going into the territory of the man who arrested John, and, in a sense, taking up John’s ministry and carrying it further, as John had prophesied.
8) What does it mean when it says that Jesus preached “the gospel of God”?
The reference to Jesus preaching “the gospel of God” does not mean that he preached the existence of God to people who did not believe in him. His audience was Jewish and already worshipped God.
Instead, “the gospel of God” refers to the news that a new phase in God’s plan of the ages is beginning. This is spelled out, as Mark records Jesus preaching, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel.”
“The time” that has been fulfilled is the time of waiting for “the kingdom of God” to appear.
The Jewish people already regarded God as the King of the entire world (Ps. 47:2). They regarded him even more particularly as the Ruler of the Jewish nation (see Josephus, Against Apion 2:18; it is in this passage that Josephus coins the word theocracy to describe the rule of Israel by God).
But it was clear that, despite the rule of God over all creation and over Israel, there are other, worldly powers that appear to rule. These include Caesar and his minions in the Holy Land, such as Herod Antipas in Galilee and Pontius Pilate in Judea.
Jesus’ announcement that the kingdom of God is at hand means that God will now manifest his kingly rule in a new way.
9) How would God’s rule be manifested in a new way?
Many in Jesus’ audience would have understood this in a purely political sense—that the reign of the Romans would be extinguished. But this was not Jesus’ plan, for as he says in John: “My kingship is not of this world” (John 18:36).
Nevertheless, as the Messiah, Jesus manifests in his own person the kingdom of God. He makes it present, and so it is “at hand.” As the mystical body of Christ (Eph. 1:22-23, Col. 1:18), the Church is also an expression of this kingdom, which grows as the Church does.
The Second Vatican Council stated:
“The Church . . . receives the mission to proclaim and to spread among all peoples the Kingdom of Christ and of God and to be, on earth, the initial budding forth of that kingdom. While it slowly grows, the Church strains toward the completed Kingdom and, with all its strength, hopes and desires to be united in glory with its King” (Lumen Gentium 5).
There is thus a sense in which the kingdom of God became present with the coming of Christ, a sense in which it grows throughout history, and a sense in which it will find its fulfillment at the Second Coming of Christ.