Sunday, February 21, 2021

Why the Holy Spirit Sometimes Drives Us into the Desert

"The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert"

(First Sunday of Lent (B): This homily was given on February 21, 2021 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Genesis 9:8-15; Psalm 25:4-9; 1 Peter3:18-22; Mark 1:12-15.)

 [For the audio version of this homily, click here: First Sunday of Lent 2021]

This short passage from chapter 1 of the Gospel of Mark begins with a very odd statement: “The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert.”

“The SPIRIT drove Jesus out into the desert.” 

The desert was a barren, dangerous wasteland; it was a place of trial, testing, and loneliness.  Why would the Holy Spirit drive Jesus into such a place?   Did the Spirit make a mistake?  Was the Holy Spirit in a bad mood that day?  Well, of course not.  The Holy Spirit is the all-loving, all-perfect, all-holy Third Person of the Blessed Trinity: he never makes a mistake, and he’s never in a bad mood. 

But that still doesn’t address the issue.  How can we explain the fact that the Spirit propelled our Lord into this terrible situation?  The simple answer is: He did it for our benefit; he drove Jesus into the desert for our sake.  In the wilderness, Jesus overcame every temptation which Satan threw at him.  Thus he showed us that by HIS power we can overcome every temptation that Satan throws at us.  As St. John put it in his first letter, “Greater is He who is in us, than he who is in the world.” 

But there’s another lesson here, one that might not be so obvious.  As I just said, the Spirit drove Jesus into the desert for our sake.  And I would say that’s precisely why he sometimes drives us into the desert: he drives us into the desert (emotionally and spiritually speaking) for our own good; he does it for the sake of our spiritual growth and for the salvation of our soul. 

We all have “desert experiences” in this life, do we not?  Experiences of loss, loneliness, trial, sadness.  Or how about the experience of dealing with a pandemic for almost a year?  Sometimes these experiences are caused by our sins, and sometimes not.  But in both cases they’re very real, and they cause us great emotional and spiritual distress.  And we wonder where God is in the midst of it all.  Well, I would contend that very often the Holy Spirit allows us to feel our emptiness and helplessness in these situations, so that we will open our hearts more completely to God.  In that sense, he drives us into the desert, so that we will realize our need for the Lord and his grace.  Bishop Sheen put it this way in one of his books: “Today, people are looking for God, not because of the order they find in the universe, but because of the disorder they find in themselves.  They are coming to God through an inner disgust, a despair that may be called creative.  [As it says in Psalm 130,] ‘Out of the depths I cry to You, O Lord.’”  (The Priest Is Not His Own, p. 57.)

How many people do you know who have come back to Christ and his Church, or grown stronger in their faith, not because everything was going smoothly for them, but precisely because their lives were coming apart, and they felt empty on the inside?  I think we’ve all known many people who have had that experience.  Perhaps it’s even happened to us.  It’s what Bishop Sheen called the experience of “black grace”: God allowing us to experience our inner darkness--our inner powerlessness--so that we will turn to him in repentance and receive his healing and strength.

“There’s something missing in my life.”  “I need something more.”  “My heart is restless.”  “I’m looking for unconditional love.”  “I don’t know why I’m here on this earth.”  “Life is overwhelming me.”  “I’m bored.” “Nothing ever satisfies me.  Even when I get exactly what I want, it doesn’t make me perfectly happy.” 

Those are the statements of men and women who are presently in the desert.  Now in the Gospel of Luke we are told that when Jesus came out of the desert after his battle with Satan, he returned to Galilee “in the power of the Spirit.” (Luke 4:14)  Which is precisely God’s desire for each of us whenever we undergo a “desert experience.”  The Holy Spirit leads us there not to make us despair!  The Holy Spirit would never do that; the Holy Spirit loves each of us with an eternal love!  Rather, he wants us to face the void within ourselves so that we will turn to God and allow him to fill it—so that we, like Jesus, might come to live our lives “in the power of the Spirit.”  God wants to fill us this Lent through the Eucharist and Confession, through prayer, through the Best Lent Ever videos, and through our other Lenten disciplines.  May we all give him the opportunity to do that, so that each and every one of us will be “out of the desert” by Easter Sunday.