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Why do we struggle against surrendering to love?

VOTIVE CANDLES
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The temptation to choose our own way and will over God’s is never far away.

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.

—Mark 1:12-13

In the novel Brighton Rock, Graham Greene wrote, “You can’t conceive, my child, nor can I or anyone, the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God.” Lent is the time when the Church pauses to reflect on the reality of that mercy. And, when weighed against human standards, God’s mercy is appallingly strange because it costs us so little: God asks only that we surrender to his love and mercy.

For most of us, this process of “surrender” is one which unfolds gradually over the course of a life of prayer, service, struggle, and even setbacks. However, the temptation to choose our own way and will over God’s is never far away. And we can see the results—the consequences—of these selfish or self-centered choices all around us. This choice of self rather than God is at the core of the story of the Great Flood that we hear in the Book of Genesis, with Noah and his family reminding us of the promise of life that is offered to those who remain faithful to the ways of God (see the First Reading).

The call to surrender to God’s mercy is at the core of the Christian life. And yet, at the same time, there is a struggle that takes place in every human heart: “Lent would indeed be a futile liturgical farce,” writes Edna Hong, “if the redeemed were henceforth sinless and if the tides of human nature were not always moving even the twice-born [i.e. the baptized], who have not shed their human nature, in the direction of complacency and taking it all for granted … As long as the conscience of the born-again are housed in human flesh and bone, they are prone to the sleep of death and need continual rescuing.”

St. Mark’s account of the temptations of Jesus (which we hear in this Sunday’s Gospel) doesn’t have the details that the we find in the accounts in Matthew and Luke’s versions. Nevertheless, the temptations of Jesus remind us that the life of a disciple includes contending with the mysterious tug of evil, which is both repellent and attractive. Just like Jesus, we can be tempted to temporarily shift our focus—perhaps, just for a moment—from God’s promises in order to attend to our own wants or needs or priorities.

When this happens, we risk losing our awareness of God’s presence and action in our lives, choosing to focus instead on more tangible realities, like food, possessions, pleasure, comfort, and reputation. But, the struggle is real. As Trappist writer Michael Casey has reflected, “We have been called to follow the one who was tempted in the desert, and we must expect that fidelity to our life of discipleship will involve us in substantial and sometimes earth-shuddering struggles” (from Fully Human, Fully Divine).

In the end, after being tempted to be self-sufficient and to use his power for his own glory, Jesus did not turn away from God—the will of the Father remained the priority of Jesus’ life. Mark testifies to this by marking that this becomes the moment when Jesus begins his ministry, proclaiming “the gospel of God.”

The Season of Lent ultimately reminds us that holiness is possible for us only when we enter into the struggle, remembering that whatever darkness we may encounter will not overtake us as long as we refuse to accept anything less than God’s love and mercy: “Christ suffered for sins once, the righteous for the sake of the unrighteous, that he might lead you to God” (1 Peter 3:18).

How do prayer and Scripture support you when you face temptation? How do you experience God’s love when you doubt?

When have you succeeded in your struggles against temptation? What or who helped you overcome temptation?   

As we pray for and mourn with the people of Parkland, Florida, how is the Season of Lent calling you to promote justice and peace for the sake of all people?

Set aside time in the next few days to read Pope Francis’ Message for Lent. How do the Holy Father’s words encourage and challenge you to be more open to the gifts of others?   

Words of Wisdom: “In the desert, it is as though Jesus rejects the tempter saying, ‘Don’t you know that what fills my heart is not the power and glory of this world, of which I am not a slave, but my Father, whose son I am?’ Jesus knows well that what people are disposed to adore reveals what is in their hearts. It is that profound truth that fills the heart of every person and that orients her choices and guides her behavior.”—Goffredo Boselli in The Spiritual Meaning of the Liturgy

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