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By Fr. Mark E. Thibodeaux, SJ

The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan. He was among wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him.

After John had been arrested, Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.”

Fr. Mark Thibodeaux, SJ
Fr. Mark Thibodeaux, SJ

Just 12 verses into Mark’s Gospel we read that “The Spirit drove Jesus into the desert (Mark 1: 12).” Woah! That’s a strong statement. As far as I know, in no other place in the Gospels do we hear of the Holy Spirit driving Jesus anywhere. And of all places, why the desert? No one either in Jesus’ day or in ours spontaneously intentionally wanders off into a desert for 40 days. Why would the Spirit drive Jesus into the desert?

Whatever the reason, it was an extraordinarily important moment. Before the desert, Jesus did not work as a messiah – no preaching, healing, driving out demons, gathering disciples. Instead, he was an anonymous son of a tradesman. After the desert, he immediately launched into his messiahship. Within 48 hours he gathered disciples, drove out a demon, healed Peter’s mother-in-law, and then healed a whole town’s worth of ill people. One could say that Jesus did not become the Messiah until after his experience in the desert. But why was this sojourn into the desert so necessary?

Surely, you’ve heard of the expression, “He had to face his demons.” For example, a novelist might say to you, “I’m writing a story about a man who finds the love of his life, but knew that before he marries her, he would need to face his demons. So, he disappears for a while and goes to a treatment center for alcoholism. He returns sober and asks his love to marry him.” We would find this a reasonable scenario because we know that sometimes we humans need to face our demons before launching into our next big thing.

Is it possible that even Jesus had to face his demons before launching his messiahship? You might argue, “But Jesus was sinless.” But some of our demons are not exactly sins. That novelist could just as easily write a story about a guy who had to face his demons of fear of intimacy and fear of commitment before getting married. Having such fears is not sinful. We know that Jesus was like us in all things but sin, so perhaps he had to face his fears, legitimate doubts, troubling thoughts, and so on before taking on his vocation.

Here’s another way to look at it: Maybe Jesus began being our savior not upon exiting the desert but upon entering it. Jesus is our teacher and model. Perhaps he was modeling what we must do at the beginning of every new turn in our spiritual lives. In the Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius teaches us that the first thing we must do if we wish to enter into a deeper relationship with Christ is to face our demons and come to Christ with them so that he can heal us of them.

The 40 Days of Lent call us to follow Jesus into the desert and to face our demons that we have been repressing and avoiding. But have no fear, the story reminds us that God will send his angels to minister to us as we trek through the craggy landscape of our troubled hearts and minds.

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