I had been well warned. Yes. About the new dog. For weeks before my visit to my good friends in Florida, I had been sent enchanting photos of the progress of Duke, an uncommonly precocious, but very German Shepherd. Barely larger on his homecoming (I am told) than a fat cat, hardly able to stand because his large feet (okay, paws) seemed to get ahead of him every time he moved — which was almost always — he seemed to be growing exponentially week by week. I had no idea what I would encounter on arrival.

The first thing I felt when I crawled into the passenger’s seat — my friend picked me up at the airport, Duke in the rear — was pure energy. Excitement. There was no fear that Duke would see me as an intruder, but more as a new play pal, as I would soon learn. Powerfully. He was still technically a puppy. It wasn’t until later that day that I learned the relativity of that term.

In the back yard now, where Duke was running around the rim of the pool, I entered his territory through the screen door. My friend and his daughter were already out there playing catch with one of the balls the dog owned. No sooner did I spot a convenient patio chair when, without warning, I got a push that almost knocked me off my feet. Wow. I had not estimated the force this creature could produce. I was soon to learn that there was nothing more important to him than to play catch. Constantly. Unbridled energy and enthusiasm. If you’ve ever wrestled anyone, you will understand how quickly I tired of the steady rhythm of throw and fetch. But there was no stopping him.

If an animal could be said to be joyful, well, this was it on full display. One day, while in the house, it was almost pathetic to see the dog bring a ball to one of the cats lounging on top of the back of the sofa. He brought it as far as he could to the cat’s face, looking quizzingly for a response. Then he barked twice quickly in that high-pitched begging mode dog’s use. That cat stared stone-faced as if to say, what does this crazy person want. Not a clue.

My dog story taught me something about Lent, and how God looks for a response from us. Typically, as this season begins, we start planning what kind of things we are going to give up, what foods or drinks we will cut out, what extra prayers we might say, what actions to please God we might engage in. What if all God wants from us is that we play with him?

I am sorry if this offends anyone, suggesting that there is a “dogginess” about God. I am not the first to have noted this. Francis Thompson more than alluded to it in his poem, “The Hound of Heaven” (1890) in which he paints a vivid picture of his on/off relationship with this God who keeps pursuing him. It’s well worth reading. The hound he describes has, at times, wolf-like qualities in his keen sight and hearing but, ultimately, is revealed with the nurturing heart of the St. Bernard.

The relentless pursuit of those softly pounding feet, the occasional catch, then the flight. The imagery he uses brings to mind the odd and startling intimacy often shared between dogs and their owners, which can be puzzling to those not “in the know.” The doggy smack that resembles a wet kiss and the impulse to lick the sores of the wounded master.

Even as we worried Wednesday about how not to touch or be touched while imposing ashes, we had to smile at least at the absurdity of sanitizing ourselves from death and the fear of death against sacramentals that are there to be applied and to remind us of the inevitability, even the proximity of death, within and around us. Jesus always touched people. We saw how he touched the untouchables in last Sunday’s Gospel about the healing of the leper. And not a few passages later (we are in St. Mark’s account) we will read of the tongue of a dumb man being touched by the saliva of the Healer. And who can forget the recipe for the mud paste applied to the eyes of the blind man?

Yes, healing can be messy, if it is ever to reach the core of the disease. Doctors’ offices are messy, not to mention surgical procedures. So if Lent is supposed to put us into intimate contact with our Healer, then are we going to shrink back from a sprinkle of ashes or even a little push from behind from the Hound of Heaven?

Interestingly enough, that’s how St. Mark describes the start of Jesus’ fast in the wilderness, for forty days and forty nights. Most texts translate the Greek word ?κβ?λλει (ekballei) into “drove” — “the Holy Spirit drove Jesus into the desert …” (Mk 1:12). The word is broad enough to be rendered as “sent,” but I am inclined to read it more forcefully, in keeping with the roots of the words that implies a release of energy on the part of the actor.

Okay, maybe my experience of Duke’s impulsive, yet playful push is still weighing on my mind. Or maybe the Holy Spirit, dog-like, really did give Jesus a decisive shove at this point. The sudden transition from the Baptism (“at once”) into the desert is nothing less than a come down from a Theophanous revelation (“this is my beloved Son …”) to the harsh reality of the wilderness, which is really a metaphor for the world Jesus came to.

Jesus comes from so far to be so near to us. Lent is the time for us to stop “putting off” God. We are in a mess and Jesus comes to the mess. We don’t need another episode of “hygiene theater,” in which, like our dutiful COVID clean-ups, we should try to impress our neighbors — let alone God — about how clean and sanitary we are. Lent is not a performance to make us feel good about how much we are doing, but a time to “let go and let God.”

If Jesus was, almost literally, pushed off his feet to be tempted in the wilderness, to feel the burdens that we fallen humans face in the world, let’s understand clearly that there is nothing, really nothing going on in our lives that we need to hide from his touch — the good, the bad and the ugly. He is here for us! Will we be there for him?

To carry the canine imagery just a tad beyond the comfort line perhaps, there is something that every dog-owner must do every day, almost as much as feeding the dog. Yes, you have to walk the dog and then, in many jurisdictions at least, clean up after it. Those who really love their dogs have no doubt that if the dog were on the other end of the leash, the dog would do the same for them. The bond is very strong. In all candor, we must admit that Jesus is the one who came to clean up after our mess. Yet, all he has asked in return, it seems, is that we be willing to play with him! Yes, pray, too. Pray to him and with him. But in this Lenten season, when we prepare for venerating him for his ultimate sacrifice on the Cross, in all its mud and gore, it might just do us good to see our Lord as one who wants so dearly to play in our lives with us.

There is a joy in Lent beyond the doom and gloom when we can see in Jesus one who smiles at us, invites us into intimacy with him, to touch his wounds, to feel his tears, to be washed in his blood as many a saint has imagined, to know the sound and warmth of his breath on our face, begging for us to fetch that ball of grace he is tossing into our lap. Funny that we should be surprised by a God who actually wants us to have fun with him, even if it starts with a push!