Fixing a Spiritual Toothache

Sunday, Feb. 18, First Sunday of Lent
• •Gen 9:8-15
• •Ps 25:4-5,6-7,8-9
• •1 Pt 3:18-22
• •Mk 1:12-15

by Marc Massery

Mouth stretched wide, fists clenched, the sound of the drill creeps closer until: impact. Sitting in that cold room, you might wonder why you're paying the man in the surgical mask. But we need good dentists. No one wants a rotten tooth. And isn't that how life always seems to work? We have to experience discomfort in order to be well. At least, that's the message we receive from the readings at Mass this Sunday.

Everyone knows the back story to the first reading. God recognized Noah as the only righteous man left in a world filled with wickedness (see Gen 7:1). Then Noah and his family took two of every animal and floated alone on an ark for 40 days while everyone else perished. The smell of the ark alone likely made Noah and his family wonder why they ever agreed to this. Then the thought likely hit them that everyone else in the world was dying. But trusting in God, they make it through. Afterward, God promises Noah, his descendants, and all living creatures that He would never again annihilate an entire generation. He shows them a rainbow as a sign of His promise. Finally He reveals to Noah his mission: to repopulate the earth.

In the Gospel, we meet Christ immediately after He was baptized in the Jordan River by John. The waters of Baptism, of course, wash away sin, replacing the need for another flood. Similar to how God recognized Noah as the only righteous man left on earth, immediately upon His Baptism, God recognizes Christ as His "beloved Son" (Mk 1:11). Then, like Noah, Christ spends the next 40 days in a barren place surrounded by animals. The Gospel reading says, "At once the Spirit drove him 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" (Mk 1:12-13).

Similar to Noah's situation, after Christ's 40 days of trial in the desert, God sends Him on His great mission: to preach the Gospel. The reading continues, "After John had been arrested, Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God'" (Mk 1:14). God allowed both Noah and Christ to go through a period of suffering so that they could better fulfill their mission.

These 40 days of trial for both Noah and Christ reveal to us the purpose of Lent. Though God can speak to us during times of victory and joy, He often calls us to a greater relationship with Him through suffering and sacrifice. We try to take care of ourselves throughout the year, going to Mass, praying regularly, and performing works of mercy (the spiritual toothbrush, floss, and mouthwash). But sometimes without even realizing it, we develop bad habits and begin to rot from the inside out. Thankfully, Lent provides us an opportunity to break bad habits and develop a new one, whether we quit consuming some form of junk or add a pious discipline.

Some years, Lent can seem like a breeze. Maybe we barely miss evening television and find comfort in praying an extra daily Rosary. We feel the presence of the Holy Spirit when we fast. We find refreshment in frequent Confession. We feel the presence of the Holy Spirit when we receive Christ in the Eucharist.

But even if we're having a difficult Lent, as long as we're trying, God is still working through us. Maybe prayer feels stilted, fasting becomes a frustration, or going to Confession seems like a chore. But lack of consolation does not mean we're regressing spiritually.

In fact, just the opposite may be true. In his spiritual exercises, St. Ignatius of Loyola says that God allows us to undergo periods of desolation because He "may wish to give us a true knowledge and understanding so that we may truly perceive that it is not within our power to acquire or retain great devotion, ardent love, tears, or any other spiritual consolation, but that all of this is a gift and a grace of God our Lord."

When we have a greater realization of how reliant we are upon God's grace, the Lord will be able to fulfill His will in us in a more perfect way, just like He did with Noah and Jesus. When it hurts, we just have to submit to Jesus and trust Him. He's the only doctor who can fix our spiritual toothache.

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