First Sunday of Lent
St. Mark tells us that immediately following his baptism, Jesus was “driven by the Spirit into the wilderness for forty days tempted by Satan”. [Mark 1,12-13] This most important event receives only a brief mention, possibly because the first hearers were well aware of the struggle for they too were involved in the evil of persecution surrounding them. Later when Luke and Matthew report at greater length the forty days it becomes clear that the battle for the human soul is at the heart of Christian life, and requires a full frontal acknowledgement that the soul is the battleground in which the enemy is raw evil. We are warned that this is happening when we experience “temptation”. No surprise then that the Lord’s Prayer, is a daily focus on this battle, “Lead us not into temptation – deliver us from evil”. To grasp this we need to put behind us the trivialising by our culture regarding temptation as “sugar and spice and all things nice”, sex, drinking smoking and obesity, all bodily excesses.
The forty days in the wilderness was no health farm! Our Lord was preparing to trample down the enemy who must never be underestimated, who had power to seduce, distort, delude and destroy. This is an awesome power that we should fear. In his early life, Joseph Ratzinger, called this “the dissolving of the soul” and that is what Jesus confronted and we also prepare to face each Lent.
Maybe the greatest temptation for us today is to close our eyes to the consequences of the struggle against raw evil. Our western world already displays symptoms of cynicism, depression, that certainly could result from the illness of the soul. This has been described by writers like Oliver Bullough who tells of the effects of atheistic totalitarianism crushing the souls of Russians where suicide and alcohol, broken families and fear were destroying a whole nation. [His book called: The Last Man in Russia: The Struggle to Save a Dying Nation, 2013]
Jesus nowhere teaches us that we shall find God in success or silk clothing but through the cross and that is a difficult way to contemplate. The Old Testament record of the Prophets and the New Testament examples of the Apostles or even the history of the saints all bear witness to the “struggle” to overcome evil. Our Christian forefathers were used to this way of contemplating Christian life calling it “ascesis” and they were familiar with ascetical training, a word that has gone out of fashion but needs to make a comeback. The French lay theologian Olivier Clement said that ascesis was “to awake from sleepwalking through daily life” and this is a good thought approaching Lent.
Mental health is refreshed by sleep when the brain is pruned from non- essentials and the body too may rest and fast from needless nourishment. But the soul also needs pruning Jesus says, to bear fruit. “I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit. [John 15,1–2]
In the heat of the Corona pandemic of 2020–2021 we must remember that health of body and health of mind however important they are not the full story! More destructive than Covid 19 is the virus that can destroy the soul. As St Paul teaches, “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age,… Therefore take up the whole armour of God that you may be able to withstand in the evil day… [Ephesians 6,12–13]
Fr. Geoffrey Neal