Bishop Barres’ Lenten Letter
“The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan … After John had been arrested, Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the Gospel of God.”(Mark 1:12 – 14) Each year on the First Sunday of Lent, the Church presents for our reflection and prayer the experience of Jesus in the desert. Jesus’s experience in the desert follows immediately upon His baptism by Saint John the Baptist and immediately precedes His public ministry and proclamation of the Kingdom of God, in word and in deed. Saint Mark points out to us that the Spirit, who had just descended upon Jesus in the form of a dove, drove Jesus into the desert.
The desert was a barren place, a place of lifelessness, the home of the devil and evil. The Spirit sends Jesus into the desert to prepare himself for the years of His public ministry, ultimately leading to His Death and Resurrection. Jesus spends time away from the world to prepare himself. But He also goes forth into the desert to begin His battle against evil, sin and death. Jesus goes into the very dwelling of evil to begin the confrontation. This battle will continue throughout the rest of Jesus’s life. The ultimate victory will come on Good Friday through His ultimate act of love on the Cross.
Our yearly experience of Lent, our forty day “desert experience,” can be viewed in the same way. We are inspired and sent by the Spirit to spend some time apart from the world of noise and recover the beauty of silence. But, we are also sent to do battle. Our experience of true silence should allow us the opportunity to both listen to the voice and promptings of God as well as to better know ourselves. This personal battle against sin and evil can be painful, because we come to realize that we are all in need of constant conversion.
There are real changes each and every one of us need to make in our lives and our hearts this Lent. But like Jesus, we are not alone. The Lord was ministered to by angels during His forty days in the desert. We are constantly aided by our guardian angels, by the angels and saints in heaven, by the community of the baptized, and by the grace of the sacraments of the Church. Like Jesus, we need to emerge from the desert ready to take on the evils of the world and work to spread the Gospel.
It was only a few short weeks into Lent 2020 that the experience ofCovid-19 made radical changes to our society, our Church, and our families. The experience of desert isolation was no longer a metaphor but a lived reality. The experience of having our parishes locked down for months was painful for all of us. Many of us still experience this isolation in many ways. But as Christians we always remain men and women of hope. We know that the Cross of Good Friday leads to the empty tomb of Easter Sunday.
Pope Francis has declared this year as a special Year of Saint Joseph. In Saint Joseph we find a man of profound hope and strength as well as prayerful silence. Scripture does not record one word spoken by Saint Joseph. But Scripture does tell us of his unwavering faith and trust, which go beyond words. Following Jesus, and like Saint Joseph, men and women in the first centuries of the Church began to leave the towns and villages and settle in the isolation of the desert. Like the Lord, they sought to rid themselves of the distractions of everyday life so they too could do battle with evil, and through their quiet example proclaim the Kingdom of God.
This continued throughout the history of the Church, even to our present moment. Saint Antony, Saint Benedict, Saint Bruno, and so many others show us the lived experience of the desert is not an escape from the reality of life but a privileged encounter with the Lord and a revelation of our true selves. While most of us are not called to the monastic or solitary life, the last twelve months have given each of us an experience of solitude. We are encouraged to remain “socially distant.” In the midst of the real suffering and hardships this has caused, perhaps the hidden grace is that it has led us to be “temporary monastics.”
Our typical Lenten “desert experience” of forty days has lasted a bit longer. But we will come out of it! And like the Lord, when we emerge our goal is to proclaim the Gospel of God according to our vocation and the graces given to us. In addition to our personal sins and the evils present in our own hearts, we live in a world that is right now suffering from real physical illness as well as real division and hurt of every kind. Jesus emerged from the desert bringing the healing presence of God to all he encountered. As the baptized, the Church, the continuing presence of Jesus in the world, we need to do the same. The same Holy Spirit that drove Jesus into the desert is driving us on.
Sincerely in Christ,
Most Reverend John O. Barres
Bishop of Rockville Centre