As supreme ruler in China from 1949-1976 Mao Zedong began the practice of sending young recruits for the Communist party on what was called the “Long March.” They retraced the 8,000 miles that Mao and his army took in 1935 through some of the toughest parts of western China to evade their enemies and eventually become the fighting force that conquered China. The recruits were expected to learn from people like Mao and his soldiers who made that difficult journey what made you into a good Communist.
Lent is our “Long March.” For 40 days, we retrace the 40 years the Israelites journeyed through the desert from Egypt to the Promised Land and the great journey that Jesus Christ took to his death and resurrection.
This Sunday we begin that journey with Jesus in the desert after his baptism where he is tempted by the devil. Mark’s gospel describes it succinctly:
“The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert,
and he remained in the desert for forty days,
tempted by Satan.
He was among wild beasts,
and the angels ministered to him.”
The experience of Jesus in the desert mirrors his experience in his life. At his baptism, God calls him his “Beloved Son” and tells us to “listen to him.” He is the Messiah, sent by God to save his people. But in the desert he is tempted by Satan to be a Messiah of another kind.
In his recent reflection on Lent, Pope Benedict said that in the desert Satan “offers Jesus another messianic way, far from God’s plan, because it passes through power, success, dominion and not through the total gift on the Cross. This is an alternative messianism of power, of success, not the messianism of gift and selfless love.”
Matthew and Luke’s gospels speak more than Mark’s gospel does about the temptations of Jesus in the desert. Jesus is hungry; “Turn these stones into bread,” Satan says. You’re above the ordinary laws of life. From a mountain, Satan shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world. “Here’s political power,” Satan says. From the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem, Satan says “Throw yourself down; you can have religious power.”
Mark’s gospel goes on from his account, saying simply:
“After John had been arrested,
Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God:
“This is the time of fulfillment.
The kingdom of God is at hand.
Repent, and believe in the gospel.’”
Instead of Satan’s suggestion, Jesus follows John the Baptist and the way of the prophets. He goes to Galilee, not Jerusalem, and proclaims the gospel of God.
Jesus’ ministry in Galilee has all the ambivalence of the journey of the Jews in the desert. He’s a sign of God’s presence. Like a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night he teaches in the synagogues and along the seashore in Galilee. He gives manna to the hungry and strengthens the poor and heals the sick. He pitches his tent among them and makes his home with them.
But he finds murmuring and rejection there too. You can hear it in the constant questions and doubts that he faces. Demons cry out against him. Finally, going up to Jerusalem, Jesus faces death; he becomes the sacrifice that saves his people from their sins. As he did in the desert, Jesus accepts his role as the Servant of God in his life–he “ renounces himself and lives for others and places himself among sinners, to take upon himself the sins of the world. “ (Benedict XVI)
So what do we learn from Jesus on our long march of 40 days? Our great temptations will be like his. We like to control things, we like the world to be on our side; we like to control God. His great wish was “ your will be done, your kingdom come.” Our temptation is “my will, my kingdom come.”
Our world is a lot like his. We wish God were more visible, not hidden in signs or limited to believing eyes. We wish for a world more supportive of good values, not a desert where Satan’s voice is strong and wild beasts roam.
This Lent we make the Long March with Jesus Christ who is with us today and all days. He has pitched his tent with us. We’ll have manna to eat and rocks will give water for our thirst. A fire goes before us in darkness and a pillar of cloud marks our path in the day. Angels still minister to us.