Our Gospel reading for the First Sunday in this liturgical cycle introduces us to the forty days of Lent, a time of preparation for the Resurrection of the Lord on Easter Sunday. Mark’s Gospel gives us a very abbreviated version of the account in Matthew 4:1-11, where Jesus is tempted by the devil three times. Jesus is also ministered to by his own angels in the wilderness.
Forty Years in the Desert
Matthew, Mark and Luke’s Gospel tell us that Jesus went into the wilderness for forty days. This time period echoes back to the time that Moses and the Israelites spent in the wilderness of the Sinai, after the Exodus. Consider these two Old Testament passages:
Exodus 16:35. And the people of Israel ate the manna forty years, till they came to a habitable land; they ate the manna, till they came to the border of the land of Canaan.
Numbers 14:33. And your children shall be shepherds in the wilderness forty years, and shall suffer for your faithlessness, until the last of your dead bodies lies in the wilderness.
Note the difference in tone of the two passages. Exodus 16 tells us that the Israelites lived on manna (the bread of angels) for forty years. Numbers, by contrast, tells us that the forty days is a time of exile, where the Israelites shall suffer for their fathlessness. The forty years in the wilderness are also a time of preparation for the Israelites, before they enter the promised land of Canaan.
Forty Days in the Wilderness
In Mark’s gospel, Jesus heads for the desert before he does anything else. As of yet, he has performed no miracle in Mark’s Gospel. Nor has he called the disciples. His first action is a trial or test, where he seeks the solitude of the desert and is tempted by the devil. Mark’s account gives us no details, but we are told in Matthew and Luke that the devil fails to entice Jesus. The forty days in the desert is a time of trial for Jesus, in the same way that the Israelites were tested before they entered the promised land of Canaan, or Israel. Similarly, Jesus’ “forty days” in the desert and the Israelite’s “forty years” in the Sinai also mirrors our own Christian life, which is a time of perseverance, before we enter the promised land.
All three Gospels tell us that Jesus was ministered to by angels. The word used in Mark to describe the work of the angels is διακονέω (diaconeo) which is the Greek verb that means “to serve” or “to minister.” From this Greek term we get the term “deacon.” The Gospels are telling us that in times of temptation or trial, God will not abandon the faithful: he will send his angels to help.
Forty Days of Lent
The liturgical period of Lent is structure so that it too has forty days. The forty days include the four days from Ash Wednesday until Saturday, and then the six days for each week of the six weeks of Lent (4 days + 36 days = 40 days). Sundays are not counted among the days of Lent because each Sunday commemorates the Resurrection of the Lord, anyway. And for that reason, those who “fast” or who make a small personal sacrifice during Lent do not fast on the Sundays of Lent.
It happened in those days that Jesus came from
Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized
in the Jordan by John.
On coming up out of the water he saw the heavens
being torn open and the Spirit, like a dove,
descending upon him.
And a voice came from the heavens,
“You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”
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.
After John had been arrested,
Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God:
“This is the time of fulfillment.
The kingdom of God is at hand.
Repent, and believe in the gospel.”