Before the baptism by the Jordan, there was the baptism in the desert. Before the waters of the river were poured on him by a reluctant prophet, over his head was spilled sand.
I don’t know about you, but there’s something about the Lord venturing into the desert alone that I find quite moving. As we hear in the Gospel today, our Lord sets up camp in the desert for forty days, and in typical Markan fashion, we are told rather tersely of the strange company he keeps there among the dunes: the devil, wild beasts, and angels.
And Mark almost just happens to mention–quite causally–that by the way, the Lord also experiences temptations. It is mentioned so casually that were it not for the more elaborate and dramatic versions of this same event in Matthew and Luke, we might miss this most significant of details about our Lord: That this man Jesus–the sinless Son of God himself–knows, just like us, what it means to be tempted.
His humanity is so real that he is actually capable of not feeling almighty: He knows what it feels like to be frighteningly helpless to his own needs–which we know can at times be as fierce as beasts. Like ourselves, the Lord has had occasion to grab onto angels for help to resist temptations. And most of all, he knows what it means to be sifted by the devil, the deceiver who loves to play with our thoughts and distort them–for, as St. Ignatius teaches in his Rules for Discernment, that is the only way the devil can tempt us–through our thoughts.
The Lord has “been there, done that.” And for that very reason, when we find ourselves in a similar situation, we can say that he understands, that he so gets it, and sympathizes.
By venturing into the desert, by not just remaining in its fringes, but diving into its very depths, our Lord shows us the great desire that God has to be near us, to be one of us, in our very weakness.
We are no strangers to desert experiences. Our lives are full of them–turmoils, problems, quiet secret crises where except to the most discerning among us, people sometimes break down silently and invisibly before our very eyes.
Just yesterday I went through some kind of desert experience. My time at a Jesuit community was up, and it was time to move. Nothing new there. Been there, done that countless of times before. Just these past two years I said more goodbyes than I had in my entire life.
I had packed so efficiently a brother Jesuit who was seeing me to the door expressed genuine surprise. After the proper goodbyes, I swung my suitcase over the threshold, but as soon as I heard the door shut behind me, it hit me: The stinging pain of yet another goodbye. As I dragged my suitcase to the tube station, I felt the burden of all the goodbyes I had said and realized that even for one as practiced as I, one could never quite get accustomed to goodbyes. Leaving and letting go–that’s always been part of Jesuit life, but it doesn’t get easier. Then it struck me that our Lord too was no stranger to goodbyes, and surely, each one must have stung his eyes or broken his heart.
He knows. He understands.
This morning, however, I found myself wandering into a much vaster desert that made yesterday’s experience seem so small. I received a request to visit a woman, a young mother, recently diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer. Before the prayers, we sat in her bedroom for a private conversation, and very quietly, very simply, she led me to her desert experience, sharing with me her pain and bewilderment at this most unexpected turn of events.
I could only sit with her, reduced to silence and tears. When I finally managed to speak, I could only assure her of our Lord’s nearness to her. The Lord knows, I told her, and more than anyone else, he understands what it means to go through the desert. He’s been there, done that. Even in our deserts, we are never alone.
Never forget: Whenever we go through our desert, we receive a baptism not just with sand, but also–mingled with it–the Lord’s tears.