If you had been able to go to mass on Ash Wednesday, you would have received the traditional sign that Lent or Springtime has begun. The minster would have anointed your forehead with ashes and with words of invitation, “Change your heart, and believe the Good News!” It would be a mistake, of course, to think that this activity is confined to the six weeks of Lent! Changing hearts and believing in Jesus takes, at least, a lifetime.
Notice what unfolds as Jesus enters the waters of the river Jordan. He sinks. Then, He emerges in an act of human reaching and ascending openness. As He does so, he finds the heavens torn open, not for a second or two, but permanently. This opening allows the Spirit of Love to reach for Him. It does not land on him like a bird, it falls into Him. And then, from the inside, the Spirit drives Him into the wilderness. For Jesus, the moment of Baptism becomes the foundation for a struggle. The certainty of being loved unfolds into the desire to be faithful. This wilderness will be a place of testing and of conflict.
But not with God. It is Satan who holds sway here. Notice how quickly he makes his move on Jesus. He is associated with the ‘wild beasts’ – symbols of the violence Jesus will face if He is faithful to His mission. The Gospel of Mark isn’t just ‘Good News’, it is good news in a bad world. Satan isn’t a character in a novel and shouldn’t be imagined this way. Rather, he is the inner, invisible energy of people, groups and nations who inflict suffering on others. This adversary of God manifests itself through individuals, groups and nations by turning them into wild beasts who devour God’s good creation. At this moment, the Adversary is working through the wild beast Herod who has arrested John. But Jesus is not intimidated by this. In fact, he moves into the heart of Herod’s territory. Jesus not only preaches the Kingdom of God, He is the Kingdom of God! His Baptism structures his identity in the world. He is sustained by divine love. His life in time is permeated by eternity. Now this must happen to others. Jesus’ mission is to offer those He calls, the same gifts that are in Himself. This is why He tells them that the ‘Kingdom of God is very near to you’.
Disciples must turn away from lives that alienate others and cause them suffering and turn toward lives that embrace the new humanity. Creation is being restored and they have a part to play in this work but the Adversary is strong and has many disciples of his own. This is why we speak of our struggle to be faithful. It does not come easily.
If we were to ask why it is difficult to change our hearts and believe the Good News, we might consider that it is because we also believe other things which don’t sit well with the radical teaching of Jesus. We might prize wealth, beauty or power. We might have decided that no one can be trusted and increase our defence spending. We might believe in revenge or in our right to have power over others. This is why it is important to have a searing honesty with ourselves. Our behaviour will always reveal the beliefs we live by and this can be uncomfortable self-knowledge!
And finally, there is the thorny issue of time and death. If we allow Jesus to teach us how to value ourselves in a way that neither time nor death can destroy, we will notice that our identity isn’t defined by what we have or don’t have. It will be found in the celebration of our true identity as daughters and sons of the Most High. If we keep faith with this, our faith in Jesus will gradually change to faith with Jesus. What we treasure and where our hearts live, will become united. The Good News will take us there and we will find that our choices, decisions and behaviour will flow from this treasure in our hearts. This is the adventure of discipleship. It is the lifelong journey of coming to know the infinite love which has chosen to live in the heart of our being.