Mountaineering is a transcendent experience. On a human level, we transcend the limitation of our fears, and discover the tenacity of the human spirit. As Edmund Hillary put it, “It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.” But mountains have also long had a religious significance and have been regarded as places where God is encountered. From mountaintops, God reveals to Man that his human limitations and mortal fears can be transcended, and Man discovers the divine heights to which the human spirit can soar.
For what every human heart longs for is to see God, but no one can see God’s face and live (cf. Ex 33:20). So, the closest the prophets and patriarchs could come to transcending this human limitation was to climb mountains, where God allowed them a glimpse of his glory. We, too, must be mountaineers if we’re to see God, and today’s Lenten readings show us how. With God’s grace, we are enabled to conquer something in ourselves as we climb each peak, so that, from each of these mountaintops, we can see something of God.
"The Lord’s way is not fair!" (Ezeziel 18:25). It would seem so, if one thinks that the moral life is some kind of tally of individual deeds, that it is about the legalistic keeping of laws and commandments, or even, of Lenten penances. Then, it would seem unfair that a man who has racked up a hundred points worth of good deeds should lose them all because he slipped up and committed just one bad deed.
But Ezekiel is speaking of something much more fundamental about morality that reaches to the heart of who the person is. For the virtuous man doesn’t need to strive to be virtuous. He acts patiently, kindly, courageously (and so on) because he is patient, kind, and brave; this is who he is. Virtue, then, for the virtuous, is the most natural thing. So, when Ezekiel considers the righteous man who “turns away from virtue to commit iniquity” (Ezekiel 18:26) he means effectively a radical change in who that person is.
Today’s readings are a catechesis on prayer. It is true, as the Catechism points out, that prayer involves thanksgiving, adoration, praise, and contemplation of God. But Christian prayer is fundamentally the prayer of petition: asking God for what we need. And it is born out of an acknowledgement of our human neediness, our poverty, and powerlessness.
So, when Jesus taught us to pray, as we heard in the Gospel on Tuesday, that great prayer consisted of six petitions. We can ask things of God precisely because he is “Our Father”, and so, as Christ says in today’s Gospel: “your Father who is in heaven [will] give good things to those who ask him”. If God is our Father, then we are his children, and so it is only right that we ask for what we need from him. That is the proper and good relationship of a child to his or her parent. And notice that when we ask God for things, we are also acknowledging God’s power and goodness, his Fatherly care and protection, and so the simple prayer of petition is also a prayer of contemplation and praise of who God is.
In many ways our practice of Lent seems inspired by the Ninevites. Indeed, the blessing of ashes which we Dominicans use on Ash Wednesday refers directly to the “custom of the Ninevites” in using ashes as a sign of sorrow and repentance. And Jonah gives the Ninevites 40 days to repent, which, of course, is the number of days in Lent if we exclude the 6 Sundays.
The number 40 is significant in the Bible, and today’s reading gives us an occasion to consider its symbolic meaning. On Sunday we recalled God’s covenant with Noah. What we didn’t read was that Noah spent 40 days and nights in the ark during the Flood, and then waited another 40 days and nights for the waters to recede. This is the first occurrence of the number 40 in the Bible, and it is connected with ideas of purification, renewal, and culminates in a new covenantal relationship with God. In a similar way, Moses spends 40 days and nights in prayer on Sinai, and then he receives the Law which is a sign of God’s covenant with Israel. The people of Israel journeyed in the desert for 40 years, and experienced God’s closeness and fidelity, and that period of 40 culminates with the gift of the Promised Land, another sign of God’s covenantal relationship with his people. So, as the Holy Father said recently, “ is a number that expresses the time of waiting, of purification, of return to the Lord, of knowledge that God is faithful to His promises… it indicates a patient perseverance, a long trial, a sufficient length of time to witness the works of God…”
St Mark’s account of Christ’s 40 days in the desert is typically succinct, and unlike the other Synoptic Gospels, he doesn’t tell us how Satan tempted the Lord. Instead he pares the details down to the bare essentials, which is an invitation to us, this year, to consider other aspects of this event in Christ’s life. One phrase in particular caught my eye, mainly because this is a detail one would have thought St Mark could have easily omitted. But he doesn’t. So, St Mark says in today’s Gospel that in the wilderness, “the angels ministered to” Christ. And it’s this detail I’d like to explore as we begin our Lenten journey.
This was realized through [Jesus’] glorification, that is, through his death and resurrection: Then the Spirit of God was poured out in a super-abundant way, like a waterfall able to purify every heart, to extinguish the flames of evil and ignite the fire of divine love in the world.