In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” Mark 1:9-15
Between September 2010 and May 2012, I logged three near death experiences – one brain hemorrhage and two serious automobile accidents. In the first accident I fractured my neck and my car was totaled. In the second the car I was driving catapulted over a bridge into a ravine. I escaped without damage but once again totaled the car.
Prior to those events, whenever I thought about dying and considered what form my death might take, I had always thought that I would like to know in advance that I had, let’s say, three months or six months or a year to live, rather than being run over by a bus or being shot because I had the bad luck of getting in the way of a bullet that was intended for someone else. If I learned anything from that rather spell, it would be that more likely than not, I will not get my way, and that my death will more likely come as a thief in the night.
I am sure that most of us, at one time or another, have considered or mused about how we might spend our last days, if we knew that they were numbered to run out in the immediate future. If you have never wondered about this, then you might want to engage the exercise, just to see what you might learn about yourself. It can certainly help to clarify any discrepancy or gap between what you are about in the present moment and what you know or believe would really give you joy.
It seems to me that if we were able anticipate the actual approach of our own death, that is, once we got over the shock of the death notice, it would not be unusual to make sure that we make the most of whatever time we may have left. And making the most of that time would usually involve our examining of what have been our priorities and possibly reordering them so as not to spend our last days being about things that are not really very important to us or maybe not at all important.
I am sure no one would decide they should work more, because, let’s face it, no one, on their deathbed was ever heard to say, “I should have worked more.” Again, in the many deaths to which I have been present, I have never heard a dying person lament that they should have shopped more. If you were to die tonight and, after the fact, were able to look back on only the past week, would you be saying, “Had I only known, I would have, I could have, I should have.”
This past Wednesday, Christians came forward to have ashes imposed on our foreheads. We heard the words. “Remember that you are dust and unto dust you shall return.” In other words, “Remember that you are going to die.”
Lent begins with this reminder, that we might take advantage of and seriously engage, this annual invitation to be renewed in Christ and to put our house back in order. And there can be no better motivation to be about the business of renewal than staring our own death in the face. As we do that, or, better, if we dare to do that, we put ourselves in the wonderful arena of God’s transforming love. We put ourselves in the desert. But it should come as no surprise that not all will engage that dare. Though the spirit would lead us there, we often avoid the desert at all costs.
Rather than face death, many of us, instead, will conform our lives to the denial of death that permeates our culture. If we are young, we generally prefer to live with illusions of our own invincibility and if we are aging, we spend far too much time and far too much money seeking the mythical and ever illusive fountain of youth. Ultimately all our efforts come to naught and fail as the lines deepen, the bones ache and the energy dissipates.
Time is always running out and each day we come closer to death.
In today’s gospel, Mark tells us that after his baptism, Jesus was driven out by the Spirit into the desert wilderness. In Luke’s account the story is fleshed out in terms of the three temptations. The particulars of Luke’s account are very familiar to us. Jesus is alone in the desert. He is facing himself. He is facing the gravity of his vocation. Facing the struggle and the not so hidden terror, of actually being God’s beloved Son. Yes terror, because facing the prospect that being about the will of his Father will greatly shorten his days.
Facing the reality that to be God’s messiah on God’s terms, will mean confusing the disciples, disappointing the people, invoking the wrath of the religious leaders and threatening the civil order. In the desert, even before he begins his ministry, Jesus is facing the inevitability of his pre-mature and untimely death.
As he looks into the face of death, the gospel tells as that Jesus was tempted where he was most vulnerable. He was being seduced by the tempter to ignore what sustains life beyond those things that sustain physical life. “Command that these stones become bread.” To which Jesus responds, “It is not by bread alone that man lives.”
Being alive, being truly and deeply alive is about more than about not being hungry, not being thirsty, not being sheltered, not being able to pay the mortgage, or not being ill. We may work to sustain our physical selves but it is thru prayer, worship and the reception of the sacraments that we come to be fed by what sustains life at its deepest level. Too often we treat encounter with the sacred, as if we really have no need for it, or with a casualness that would seem to say that we can get along just fine without prayer, worship and a weekly reception of the sacraments.
Jesus was then seduced by the tempter to forget or dismiss what our lives are essentially about. “The tempter showed him, in an instant, all the kingdoms of the world, in all their glory and power. Worship me, he tempted, and I will give you all this”. I will satisfy the cravings of your ego for recognition, appreciation and unending applause. And Jesus said, “Only to God is the glory to be given. God alone is to be served.”
The Narcissus that lives in each of us – you know Narcissus, the mythological creature who fell in love with his own reflection in the mirror, wants nothing more than to be the center. How often are we tempted to make our lives about us, rather than about God, about our needs rather than about His service to charity and to justice, about our affirmation rather than about His glory?
Finally, Jesus is seduced by the tempter to caste God in the role of a magician: As one who intervenes in the natural order of things; as one who makes light of our humanity and its boundaries; And as one who gains our attention thru cheap miraculous spectacles.
It always astounds me that so much of our prayer life is, in fact, testing God to intervene like a magician, rather than embracing Him as our companion in life as it presents itself. The tempter said, “Go ahead throw yourself down from the pinnacle of the temple and God will pluck you from death before you hit the ground”. And Jesus says, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” How often do we put God to the test.
God is Good. God is gracious. God is forgiving. God is loving. He engages us in a covenant of unfailing faithfulness, prefigured in the covenant with Noah, and the covenant with Abraham and the covenant with Moses and realized in perfection in the Covenant of the Cross.
Lent is that grounded moment to ask again – What do we do with all that we have been given? What is our response to God’s gracious goodness and loving faithfulness? Do we return to Him the first fruits of the harvest or do we give him the scraps. What are our priorities as time runs out and death makes it way to our door? Before we die will allow ourselves the abiding joy of living fully as God’s beloved son or daughter?
February 18, 2018
The Rev. Frank J. Alagna