Ivan Kramskoy - Jesus in the desert
Gen 9: 8-15
1 Pt 3: 18-22
Mk 1: 12-15
In preparing the readings for this First Sunday of Lent, I came across a stirring painting from an artist by the name of Ivan Kramskoy. The painting was that of Jesus as he sat in a vast and rocky desert alone. As he sat on a large rock, it was obvious that his head was lowered, his face was dark and heavy as his eyes were cast down, his shoulders were slumped, his hands clasped together as he leaned forward slightly. Jesus looked tired, beaten and very hungry because around him amid the rocks as far as you could see, there was clearly no food or water. The sun was bright and likely very hot.
I found the image so powerful that at first I couldn’t take my eyes off of it and wondered to myself what Jesus must be thinking. The Gospel from Mark today, refers to Jesus’ temptation by Satan in the desert. In Matthew, those three temptations are spelled out and that pivotal event at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry is given more attention than Mark’s mere mention of it.
In that painting there is no devil pictured, no tempter lurking in the background. So, you wonder if this is Jesus in prayer, about to be tempted or just recovering after his battle with the evil one. But, he is a solitary figure and it may tell us something about not only Our Lord but also about our own individual struggles to resist temptation and to live as more genuine disciples of Christ.
This Lent, as always, we take time to do a personal evaluation in some form. We walk into the desert with Jesus and maybe sit by his side. What would you say to him? What might he say to you?
Jesus’ public mission to the world begins, after the lush waters of baptism, in the dry and rocky desert. In a lifeless place with “wild beasts.” Here he is called upon by his own Father to face the full force of his adversary, Satan himself. Here Satan tempts him to abandon that mission which would lead to the Cross; to put aside his own willingness to humble himself for our sakes and to use and abuse the divine power he has for his own glory.
But, God had a much more powerful plan and despite the barrenness of the desert, Jesus was not alone for the angels were with him. In Jesus’ resistance, in effect his declaration of war upon evil and the evil one himself, he reverses the devastation of isolation and division caused not in a desert but in a Garden – one called Eden by our first parents. So, Jesus appears as the new Adam who will now obey rather than disobey. And he goes into the battle scene, aka the desert place of isolation, and gives new life and hope to the world as he directly confronts his nemesis.
It is interesting that our first reading this weekend from Genesis 9: 8-15 makes reference to the “bow in the clouds,” as the sign of the Covenant between God and his people, “. . . that never again shall all bodily creatures be destroyed by the waters of a flood . . .” Once water was used to destroy, now through Christ Jesus, the waters of baptism do not destroy us, but sin, and bring his life to us. From the Garden to a River to the Desert and now to a new re-creation in Christ Jesus through his Cross. Powerful, isn’t it indeed!
As we continue our desert journey this Lent, I think we can all come to see the stark reality of our lives. The vast majority of us are certainly not evil people. We’re trying to do our best but “our best” often falls short because we rationalize and minimize. The experience of Jesus in the desert, I believe, is a stark reminder of the seriousness of sin and the price that needed to be paid on our behalf.
The beautiful Sacrament of Reconciliation is a moment of confrontation with that reality of sin my life. Once we name our sin out loud, and own it with full responsibility, then we can be healed – reconciled to God. In the painting I mentioned earlier, Jesus clearly ponders and appears to carry a heavy weight on his shoulders. Sometime, our own sin or just our own indifference about things important is a moment to reconcile and lift that burden from us.
Let’s take some time this Lent to examine what I can do without. Create a kind of desert in your life not just for the sake of being hungry or going without but for the purpose of inviting Christ to journey with you. Pray more, read spiritual reading and the Scripture, extend forgiveness to someone, offer a listening ear, be more attentive to your spouse/children/co-workers. Volunteer for something at the parish you’ve always thought about but never come forward. Pay more attention at Mass.
In the desert we have time for many more things with less distraction.