Saturday, February 25, 2012

"And the angels came and ministered to him." (Reflections on the First Sunday of Lent, Mark 1:12-15)

I remember someone dropping by to visit and chat saying to me,
“You know father, I always thought when I got older I’d have fewer temptations. I was wrong; I seem to have even more temptations now than I ever did before”.

I also remember talking to a friend who said, “I always though that when my kids grew up, I’d have more patience. But now that they’re gone and have lives of their own, I find that I seem to have even less patience than before”.

Finally, there’s the seminary student who would on occasion to talk to me about his vocation, and say, “I was a very prayerful and devout person before I entered seminary, father. And for a year or two in fact after I entered, I remained that way. Now I seem to find it difficult to pray, and my commitment seems so much weaker. I don’t seem to fully understand what has happened”.

Do any of these statements describe us? Do we find ourselves tempted frequently? Do we find ourselves impatient with a loved one perhaps? Do we find it harder to obey God’s law or lead a life of commitment to our faith? Or maybe we’ve noticed a certain lukewarmness in living our faith. Have we lost the fire, the zeal, the enthusiasm we once had for the things we value most and hold dear?

If our answer to any of these questions is “yes”, then the gospel reading on this, the first Sunday of Lent, may just have an important message for us, tucked into its brevity. Let me illustrate it with a few brief stories.

In the early days of sailing, a boy went to sea to learn to be a sailor. One day, the sea was particularly rough and stormy, and he was told to climb to the top of the mast to act as a lookout. “Easy enough”, he thought to himself. And true enough, the first half of his climb was easy, as he kept looking upwards, fixing his eyes on the sky.

But halfway to the top, he made a terrible mistake, he looked down and saw the stormy waters. That was enough to terrify him, and he grew dizzy and almost fell as he lost his grip on the railings. An old sailor who was watching him shouted: “Look back to the sky! Don’t look down. Look back to the sky!” The boy followed the old man’s instructions and finished the climb safely.

Each time I have to direct a student who’s writing a paper, a thesis, or a dissertation, the point inevitably comes when I have to remind him of the importance of “keeping his eyes on the prize”, “staying on target”, “keeping his focus”. A lot of times students get lost in the maze of researched material that they end up with a ton of notes with little focus and direction, and very little written!

Finally, how could I ever forget this little old nun who a few years ago asked to be taught how to drive? She wasn’t interested in becoming a race car driver, she just wanted to be able to drive. “It’s on my bucket list”, she said. Well, I and a couple of students decided we’d teach sister how to drive, and we decided to use the seminary van as our “classroom”.

Sister was doing quite well at the start, but as soon as she got a little more comfortable, she began losing focus on what she was doing and instead started chatting us up. At one point, we were turning a corner and she was going a little too fast; we knew if she continued at that pace, we’d hit the wall to our right. Meanwhile, she was telling us about some filing issues she was having in the office.

“Brake, sister, brake!” yelled the student sitting next to her. “Step on the break!” Now terribly distracted, she just said, “What?! Where!? Where!?” and looked down at her feet. Well, guess what? We—she actually—crashed the van. Fortunately, no one got hurt, and since she was in charge of the seminary's vehicles, we didn't get into trouble. True to form, though, she decided after a few days had passed, that she had learned her lesson and would start over again. She did learn to drive; and she did get the importance of “focus”, especially when you seriously want to learn or be good at something.

The young sailor’s mistake, sister’s mistake, was to take their eyes, their focus, off the most important aspect of what they were doing. It sort of reminds us of that incident with Jesus walking on the water and Peter asking that he be allowed to do the same. Jesus agrees; and Peter gets out of the boat and begins walking towards Jesus. Soon, however, he takes his eyes off Jesus and notices how rough and stormy the sea was, how big the waves. And before long, he got terrified and began to sink

This is what often happens to you and me. We start off our lives well. We have our eyes fixed firmly on the goal. We are fiercely focused on the prize. But when something happens, something bad or unfortunate perhaps, or when life's many distractions get our attention, we immediately take our eyes off the important things; we look away.

Mark’s account of Jesus’ 40-day sojourn in the desert is the shortest of the three gospels. He doesn’t even talk about Jesus' three temptations – which we find in Matthew and Luke. After telling us about Jesus’ baptism in the previous section, and right before telling us about the beginning of his ministry, Mark inserts this very short account of Jesus in the desert.

Now there are three things that form the heart and core of Mark’s story: (i) Satan tempted him, (ii) wild beasts were around him, but (iii) the angels came and ministered to him.

Satan tempted him, wild beasts surrounded him, but angels ministered to him.

We all experience difficulties, challenges, and temptations in life; none of us is spared. And as the gospel today shows us, neither was Jesus. Satan tempted him, he was among wild beasts. And yet “angels ministered to him”. For one who keeps his eye on the prize, who sets his gaze on the purpose he has before him, who stays focused on God, the difficulties, challenges, temptations, and even setbacks in life all fade away – precisely because God will always send his “angels to minister to us”. The challenges will come, but they will never cause us to stumble; God will see to it that we don’t.

Recently, Pope Benedict, reflecting on the words of Saint Augustine in the Confessions: “Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee”, pointed out that while the human heart’s restless search finds its ultimate fulfillment and peace in God, we must not forget that God’s heart too is “restless” in its search for us, in its desire for communion with us.

The heart of the Father is itself “restless”, calling us, guiding us, ministering to us in ways we too often fail to notice or—if we do in fact notice—immediately forget. As he did with Jesus in the desert, God, our Father, will always send his angels “to minister” to us.

Today’s brief gospel passage invites us to take an honest look at ourselves, at our lives. If we don’t experience the spiritual peace and joy we once did, if our life sometimes feels like it’s not doing as well as we had hoped, if the temptations—“Satan and the wild beasts”—seem at times to overwhelm us, perhaps it’s because we've taken our eyes off the prize, perhaps we’ve taken our gaze off the things that really matter, perhaps we’ve lost our focus on Christ, perhaps we’ve forgotten that God will always be there, “sending his angels to minister to us"; we need only to ask.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)