Confrontation is hard. We try to avoid it at all costs. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to completely avoid because whenever we have to make a hard decision we are confronted by whatever choices we have to make. That means we have to weigh all pros and cons; the consequences we can foresee good and bad. Often times, when we have to make moral decisions we are confronted by our inner beasts lurking in the dark shadows of our souls, and the angels who, in speaking God’s Word, help us to make the right decisions. We are confronted with sinful temptations. We are confronted with the truth flowing from the consequences of our decisions, teaching us the lessons of life which help us when we have to make similar decisions in the future.
Like the great prophets before him, Jesus took a forty day journey into the desert where he faced dangerous beasts and the demons of temptation which haunted him day and night while he fasted and prayed. This confrontation with hunger and evil was balanced by the goodness and beauty of the angels who comforted and consoled him. This time of testing was necessary because, if he was able to survive such an ordeal as fasting and praying for forty days and nights in the desert, his voice would carry the weight of authenticity as he confronted the people of God with the Gospel.
Lent is a time for each of us to enter into a similar kind of experience, one that helps us to live as authentic disciples of Jesus Christ. The desert is both dangerous and beautiful, no matter where, or what kind it is. In the foothills 25 miles south of Denver, Colorado there is a Jesuit retreat center. It is in the middle of nowhere, and the terrain is very dry, like a desert. I spent a month there in the summer of 1999 on a silent retreat. The scenery was majestic. The grounds of the retreat center beautifully groomed. The rooms were comfortable, the food was well prepared. The liturgies were simple but moving. There were no T.V.’s or radios, no computers and no cell phones. There was also no talking, except for on very controlled occasions. After a day, I wondered what I had gotten myself into.
Each day I walked out on the pasture trails that led into the foothills. One sunny afternoon a mile or two away from the retreat house, I stopped to look at the most colorful wild flower I had ever seen. I was thinking to myself how interesting life can be when we force ourselves to be silent for a long time. Right next to the flower was a fresh, what we call in Iowa, “cow pie.” I was pondering how my life is just like this strange conglomeration of the stuff I really don’t like very much about myself. Then, just as I started thinking about the idea that there is real beauty in my life, I heard an explosion of thunder louder than anything I had ever heard in my life. Storms like that pop up as they pass over the Rockies. It was bright and sunny when I heard that thunder, but 30 seconds later, it was pouring rain. Never before had I longed so much for home. On that day, there were a little over three weeks left of the retreat.
Lent doesn’t usually feel this intense to us, but still, it’s an important time to examine our consciences. We take stock of what’s going on inside our souls. We look at everything, the good and the bad, the beautiful and ugly, the sins of our pride and greed, the virtues of humility and generosity. In our fasting, prayer and alms-giving, we face the temptations of making excuses: “I know it’s Friday, but chicken is all I can find in the fridge and I gotta eat something with my salad.” “There is so much to do today and so little time, I’ll go to daily Mass in the morning. “We bought that laptop a few weeks ago and don’t have any more money in the budget for charity.” We so easily sabotage ourselves with excuses that can lead to sin. However, our better angels inspire us to try harder, to resist the temptations to sin, if we’re willing to listen.
Immediately after Jesus’ time in the desert was over, he preached an urgent message that sounded like thunder in the desert. The very first words we hear Jesus say in Mark’s Gospel are “This is the time of fulfillment.” Salvation has come into the world, and it’s time NOW to confront ourselves with the truth of sin and its consequences in our lives. It’s time to make a decision, “Do I follow Jesus Christ and take up my cross? Or, do I live my faith according to my own will?”
Lent, is a time for us face our sins, and to do the best we can to turn away from them and to seek the ministry of the angels that are found in prayer, fasting and giving alms to the poor. We find the ministry of the angels in the crosses we bear. It is in their caring for us that we discover the beautiful truth of who we really are.