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by Francisco Garcia

Mark 1:9-15
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts, and the angels waited on him. Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

This year in Lent we reflect on the gospel of Mark’s version of Jesus’ journey into the wilderness, where he is “tempted by Satan.” Here in the wilderness, Jesus spends a good amount of time in a psycho-spiritual and physical struggle of self, to affirm or deny his identity and his call to proclaim in radical ways the love and justice of God in the world. However, the dominant Christian narrative and expectation of Lent has become something of a penitential downer. Our litanies can make us feel downright awful, self-loathing even. I’m not so sure that this is what Jesus or even the writers of the gospels intended to have happen.

Jesus, in his struggle in the wilderness, is engaged in what I would consider to be a “beautiful struggle.” This notion of the beautiful struggle is the feeling and knowledge that while in life we will face incredible challenges, temptations, and uncertainty, we do not walk the path alone. God walks with us in the struggle, and as we read in Mark 1, calls us “Beloved.” It is not the forces of evil that send us into the wilderness. The Spirit, God’s own Spirit that created us in love, sends us there. God sends us into the wilderness, knowing that we will struggle, and that in this struggle we will find out just who we are, what are to do with our life, and most importantly, how we are to BE.

One of my greatest wilderness moments happened when I went to study for a semester abroad in Mexico during college. While I had grown up in a Mexican immigrant household in the U.S., I had never lived in Mexico for any extended period of time. Living on my own in the Southeast, in the primarily Mayan indigenous regions of the Yucatan, was a true revelation experience for me. My wilderness moments happened all the time as I encountered myself in places where Spanish was the second language and I fumbled through the few Mayan phrases that I knew; when I slept in hammocks for a week in thatched roof houses without windows, electricity, or hot water; when I became so ill from food poisoning that for a moment I felt like I wanted to die. And, the incredible moments of grace came through the compassion and openness of the Mayan people that I met; in the incredible grassroots work of faith leaders and community elders; and in the people that tended to me while I was ill.

I came out of this experience fully aware and grateful for these moments in the wilderness, and I returned to my home a different person, more fully myself. Seek and embrace your beautiful struggle—your wilderness moments—during this Lenten season and beyond!