The second week in February is always a bittersweet time for me, a time of both wandering and homing, of loss and joy. You see, the pure happiness that is football season has now past, but, but(!), the sweetness of Girl Scout Cookie season is now upon us. Last week as I contemplated how to navigate life once again outside of scores and match-ups, wondering what I would talk about with my friends, we were swarmed outside of Boyd’s by a gaggle of Girl Scouts, who forced upon me a box of Caramel Delights, and all was once again right in the world.
Jesus had His share of big swings in life. A couple weeks ago we heard St. Luke tell us about how Jesus went from being exalted in all circles, the people wondering about His marvelous works, to those same people trying to throw Him off a cliff. This week Jesus starts off His public ministry; He meets up with His cousin John to be baptized in the river Jordan, He is filled with the Holy Spirit, His Father is well pleased with Him, and then, well, the wilderness, the isolation, and the devil.
“Ernest Becker wrote in The Denial of Death that the preeminent human temptation is to escape or repress the truth of our frail skin. We avoid the desert, the loneliness, the loss of familiar support, the grand stillness. If we go into the wilderness, we will be reminded of the great hunger. We will be dwarfed by the earth’s mighty movements.
“Enter distraction. If we keep ourselves ceaselessly preoccupied, we might be spared the pain and the pained. We need not pay attention to the terrible precariousness of our condition. We need not embark on the quest for an answer to our absolute lack. Perhaps if we entertain ourselves to death, we may be able to divert our way through life.”1
That is a very real temptation. Our entertainments are different if not unique to each one of us; some are more edifying than others, and many are actually beneficial to our souls and bodies. The problem arises when we use whatever it is, drink or movies or Facebook or fitness as a barrier, a means of erecting a wall between us and not us, suits of armor to protect us from both God and man.
The Church, in her wisdom, gives us this Lenten season as a possible reparative. Lent begins with a bang, right? We subject ourselves to a reminder of our frail skin, that we are but dust and to dust we shalt return. Nothing like wearing a symbol of our own mortality on our foreheads to get things going in the right direction.
Then the Church offers other ways to tear down our walls, to strip off the armor. Walking the Stations of the Cross, we must physically place ourselves at some of the worst moments in time for not only humanity but for God. Walking the Stations forces us to remember and contemplate the fact that God Himself removed any walls that separate us from Him, that He decided to be wholly and remarkably vulnerable to us.
The Church offers us the story of Christ in the wilderness, not necessarily to give us an example of what we can do as much as an example of who Jesus is and what He can do for us. It would be arrogant and foolish of us to think that we could be put on trial in the desert by the devil himself and come out on top, but it is neither of those things to praise Jesus for prevailing, for allowing Himself to hunger and thirst and bake in the desert sun, to have His humanity tested in the extreme and still prove Himself worthy of His Father.
Every time I read the story of Jesus in the wilderness battling the devil, I always think of Flip Wilson as Geraldine: “That’s the third new dress this week!” “The devil made me buy this dress; I didn’t want to buy no dress – the devil made me do it!” The fact is that the devil is alive if not well, and without Christ we can’t navigate the swings in life, the ups and the downs, the trials and temptations. The good news is that Christ is also alive but very well, the conqueror of sin, death, and the devil, and so in Him and through Him, our walls can come down, our armor can come off, and we can become just like Him.
1John Kavanough, S.J. http://liturgy.slu.edu/1LentC021416/theword_embodied.html