On the first Sunday of Lent, we are reminded of an extremely important period at the beginning of Our Lord’s ministry when he spent 40 days and 40 nights in the desert fasting and praying. This should sound familiar to us. Fasting and praying are, of course, what we are doing right now. Or else they should be what we are doing right now.
But why? Really? Let’s get serious. Why bother?
There are a few key reasons. We are not just trying to suffer for the sake of suffering, and the desert has some lessons to teach us. The gospels say that the spirit drove Jesus into the desert – the eremos, in Greek. It can mean a wild place, an unknown place, or a remote place. The wildnerness (or desert) is a dangerous place, but it is also a place for opportunity.
We see a phenomenon in the Chinese language that expresses this reality. Did you know that the same character in Chinese that is used for the word “crisis” is also used for the word “opportunity”?
Sure, the wildnerness can be full of wild beasts. Sure, Satan can tempt you there. But you can also see in the wilderness what matters most. Think about what happened after Hurricane Katrina (or many disasters for that matter). It was no doubt a horrible disaster. It turned New Orleans in an EREMOS – a wild desert of water and waste. But for many people, they were able to start over. For many people, they had the experience that they learned in this desert what truly mattered most to them – and for most people, what matters most is God, family and friends.
This might not be a comfortable insight to realize, but it IS an insight that can save your soul.
So why do we fast during Lent? Well, when we decrease the number of distractions around us, don’t we increase the room in our hearts fit to realize what is truly important? Many people are in the habit of going on retreat every year or two. It is a very good habit to get into. Jesus went on retreats, so I’d say if the Son of God needed one than I probably do as well. A retreat is a kind of desert wilderness for the soul. There’s not much there to do but to pray and wrestle with who I really am, and who God is. We go there so that we can decrease the volume of the world’s noise around us and increase the volume of God’s voice within us. We don’t just have to fast on coffee or chocolate. We could fast on idle conversations, newspapers, cell phones, and other unneeded distractions.
What is perhaps more important than these, though related to them, is the fact that it is often in the desert that we truly discover who we are. Have you ever entered a period in your life where you seem to be wrestling with temptations, wondering what life means and who you are, and surrounded by pitfalls? Everything seems confusing and you seem to be in kind of an “inbetween” period in your life. This is often what spiritual writers refer to as a “desert” or “wildnerness” time in one’s life. Sometimes God brings us to a place where our spirit feels dry, lonely and bored so that he can speak to us again. How do I know that? Well, many spiritual writers have said it, but it also comes straight out of scripture. The prophet Hosea tells us:
Therefore, behold, I will allure her,
and bring her into the wilderness,
and speak tenderly to her.
And there I will give her her vineyards,
and make the Valley of Achor a door of hope.
And there she shall answer as in the days of her youth,
as at the time when she came out of the land of Egypt.
God speaks about the time when the Israelites are in Egypt as almost a kind of honeymoon time when God was actually very close to his people because his people depended upon him so much. That journey should have taken them about 10 days, but they wandered in circles for 40 years because they were so stubborn and wouldn’t listen to him. I wonder if there is a parable in there for us?
God actually says in the prophet Hosea that he is going to draw us into the desert. Why? So that he can speak tenderly to us. Doesn’t the gospel today read, “And Jesus was driven into the desert by the Holy Spirit”?
Hopefully we understand a little better why we hear also in the gospel, “Jesus was in the wildnerness forty days and was tempted by Satan, and he was with the wild beasts.” But have we forgotten the last line of that gospel? The last line reads, “And the angels ministered to him.”
The desert might be where the demons are and where there is a lot of inner conflict going on, but it’s also where the angels are. In other words, God will be there to comfort you. Those in-between periods of indecision and conflict will not always last – but guess what? They WILL last if we refuse to go into the desert to listen to God and fight with our personal demons. It is in the desert where we learn who we truly are.
When Jesus came back from those forty days, on the gospels says that he returned in the power of the Holy Spirit and he immediately began to preach about the kingdom of heaven. He knew what he was about. He was full of divine strength and ready to go all the way to Jerusalem to be crucified for us. He loved us to the end. But the place where he grew in strength to do that was the desert – that place of fasting and prayer, that sometimes-lonely place where we seek no one but God. Let us pray for the grace to follow the Lord into the desert this Lent as well, so that we might emerge as well in the power of the Holy Spirit to free God’s people from the chains that bind them.