Back in 1968, a few weeks after Diane and I were married, the United States Navy ordered me to San Diego; and so the two of us set out on the cross-country drive from Massachusetts.
One afternoon, as we drove through Arizona, we pulled off the highway and stopped the car, totally captivated by a distant thunderstorm moving across the desert, truly a remarkable sight. Because it was so distant, we could see the entire storm. We watched sheets of rain on the horizon as bolts of lightning struck the ground one after another. It was a spectacular display, but because it was so far away it just didn’t seem real.
That same sense of unreality can affect us whenever we view events from a distance; just as today when we hear about the horrendous persecution of Christians in distant parts of the world. Yes, those storms seem very distant too, don’t they? They’re certainly not happening here…at least not yet. Many Christians simply push it all aside, not really accepting that hundreds of their brothers and sisters in faith are being martyred almost daily. In a word, they become indifferent to it all. Others look out at the world and its troubles and its sinfulness and that’s all they see. They wear blinders of pessimism, all the time forgetting that God has promised to be with us always.
Just turn again to today's first reading from Genesis, where we encounter one of the first of God's promises, His covenant with Noah. It's a promise He will renew and expand throughout salvation history in anticipation of the Incarnation of the Word of God among us.
Brothers and sisters, there’s no place in the mind and heart of the Christian for either indifference or pessimism. Indeed, the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ, is a message of total unabashed optimism. This is what Lent’s all about. It's a time of optimism, a time of renewal. It's a time to turn away from yesterday, focus on today, and look forward expectantly to tomorrow.
Look again at today's Gospel. Jesus entered into the desert, right into the heart of a spiritual storm. Did He have to go there? Did He have to perform such a radical sacrificial act? Did He have to subject Himself to the direct and personal temptations of Satan? Of course not! His Divinity guaranteed the outcome. But He went for us; He always offers Himself to us as a model. Jesus Christ, true God and true man, like us in everything but sin, voluntarily submitted Himself to temptation.
For Jesus it was a time for prayerful communion with the Father, a time of formation, a time to prepare Himself for His ministry and, ultimately, for His passion, death and resurrection. In many respects it was the defining turning point of His life, a sharp dividing line between His hidden private life and His public ministry.
God has given us a Redeemer whose love for us is boundless. No matter what sufferings, pains or temptations we experience, we have our God leading us, telling us to have confidence in His mercy, since He too has experienced these same temptations. Recall the words of today's responsorial psalm: "He shows sinners the way" [Ps 25:8].
In giving us this season of Lent, the Church encourages us to follow Our Lord’s example. The Church leads each of us, as the Holy Spirit led Jesus, to confront our own very personal deserts. Each one of us here today has a desert or two to contend with, some of those inhospitable places that expose the barrenness of our lives, places we’d rather avoid and maybe just look at from a distance.
Has your relationship with God become a desert? Has your prayer life become arid, something you struggle through mechanically only on Sunday morning? Or like the person who claims friendship only when he needs another’s help, is your prayer reserved for times of need?
St. Paul instructs us to "pray constantly" [1 Thes 5:17]. What does this mean? Only that God wants us to place everything – all our plans, burdens, worries, pains – at His feet. He’ll pick them up and bear them for us. Come to Him in prayer. Share your sorrows and joys with Him, and taste His goodness.
Has your family life become like that chaotic storm roaring across the desert? Has mutual respect and patient understanding been replaced by the thunder of arguments and bolts of bitterness aimed at the hearts of those you love? Learn to forgive as the Father forgives, and love as the Father loves. Come together in daily prayer and watch as God unfolds a miracle in your lives.
Or is your desert one of self-absorption or materialism? Do you ignore the hungers of those around you, concentrating instead on your own needs and wants? People hunger for more than bread. They hunger for a kind word, for someone who will listen, for a reassuring touch. And most of all they hunger for God’s love in their lives. Will you be the one who brings it to them?
Do you suffer in the desert of habitual sin? Put it behind you. Taste the forgiveness and mercy of God this Lent in the sacrament of reconciliation.
Or do you live in the desert of pride, in that dark polluted spring, the source of all other sin? The temptations to which Jesus refused to submit are the same temptations we all face, temptations that ultimately merge into one: the temptation to pride. To trust in one’s own power. To trust in Satan’s power, the power of evil. To trust in the power of the world. They all amount to the same thing. This is the great temptation down through the ages: to imagine we can achieve through our own efforts what only God can give.
Remember how they taunted Jesus on the cross: “He trusted in God; let God deliver him if he loves him” [Mt 27:43]. No angels came to Jesus on the cross, but God’s plan wasn’t suspended. Although Jesus seemed abandoned, His trust in God never wavered. Nothing separates Jesus from the Father, not even the desert. Jesus sets His heart on the Father, believes in Him, trusts in Him. And the Father vindicates the Son when and where He chooses. But He does vindicate Him.
Through His resurrection Jesus assures us that victory is ours if only we desire it and persevere in faith and trust. That’s why the Church calls Lent "a joyous season." Yes, Jesus calls us to repentance, but He doesn't stop there. "Repent and believe in the Gospel", [Mk 1:15], He commands us. Believe in the Good News.
Brothers and sisters, the Good News is life, the life God wants to share with us. Believe in life! Christ's life and your life, life here and eternal, life now and forever. Like Jesus, use this Lenten season to confront your deserts, and leave them behind. For Lent is not about yesterday. It is about today. And yesterday is death, death devoid of meaning. Today is life. So if you want to repent, live! Come alive! Let Christ live in you and through you. Open your life to Him and to the will of the Father.
Yesterday is sin. Today is love. God's love for us and the love He wants us to share with others. It’s the love that keeps His commandments. The love that can overcome even death, the crucified love that takes away the sin of the world. If you want to repent, love! Love God and love one another.
Yesterday is despair, the despair of a world without a living, loving God. The despair of horoscopes and palm readers, the despair of new-agers resigned to become one with an uncaring universe, the despair of gloomy theologians preaching the heresy of predestined damnation. For today is hope. Hope in God's message of love and forgiveness, the Good News of eternal life. So if you want to repent, hope! Come to know the mercy of God.
Yesterday was slavery, slavery to sin, to pride, to fear. But today is freedom! Not the false freedom of doing whatever we want, but true freedom -- the power to choose good over evil. So if you want to repent, be free! Open yourself to God in free obedience to His commandments, and to each other in unforced love.
And do you know something? The wonderful thing is, you don’t have to do it alone. Indeed, you can’t do it alone. But if you call upon the Father, He will send His Holy Spirit to lead you just as he led Jesus.