On a cross country trip many years ago my brother and I drove through the desert somewhere in the southwestern United States during the month of August. After driving for some time in the desert we stopped, got out of the car and looked around. It was hot…really hot. It was bright…no clouds to shield the burning sun and nothing to create shade except the care and our bodies. There were no smells in the air. There were no sounds in the air. The cold bottles of Aquafina in the cooler seemed to be the only water around as far as we could see. It was, or it seemed to be, a barren wasteland. We drove off, disappointed that the desert didn’t offer more. I’m not sure what we were expecting but whatever it was the desert didn’t meet our expectations. The desert appeared to be a vast, barren, and uncomfortable wasteland not worthy of our time.
Years later I ran across an article in National Geographic Magazine entitled “Songs of the Sonoran” which is a desert in the southwestern United States. The article began, “A desert can fool the eye. A sun-blasted plain of death turns suddenly into a landscape of sound, water and life.” It wasn’t until I read the article that I realized that I had not experienced the realities of the desert and all that it had to offer on our cross-country trip. And it’s not surprising. We stopped only for a few minutes, experienced the uncomfortableness and apparent barrenness of the desert and decided it didn’t have much to offer before we moved on.
The same thing can happen to us as we travel through the desert during Lent. During Lent the Church calls us to prayer, fasting, and almsgiving…to go out into the spiritual desert an to spend time alone with God. During Lent we are called to remove all distractions from our lives so that we can ponder the big questions: who is God; who am I; and why am I here? We might stop, look around, feel extremely uncomfortable with the nothingness that surrounds us, and return to the security of a safer place: a place that is filled with sensual pleasures and possessions that bring us comfort; a place where we wield power and where we are in control; a place where our achievements are held in high esteem by others. We stop only momentarily in the spiritual desert, not long enough to experience new springs of life gushing forth from the parched, dry land of our lives.
One of the messages on this first Sunday of Lent is that God leads us into the desert where we become the people He wants us to be. God brought the Israelites out of Egypt and into the promised land…a land flowing with mild and honey. But in between Egypt and the promised land they wander for 40 years in the desert confronted with the questions of who God was, who they were and what they were called to be. And it is in the desert that the Israelites begin to recognize that they were God’s chosen people and that through them God’s salvation would be manifested to the world.
Similarly, immediately after his baptism Jesus “was led by the Spirit into the desert for forty days, to be tempted by the devil”. The temptations that Jesus faced were the same temptations that the Israelites faced, that we face today, and that our children and our children’s children will face tomorrow. Jesus, armed with the Word of God, defeats the devil. To the devil’s temptation for pleasure and possessions Jesus says…“One does not live on bread alone.” To the devil’s temptation for prestige Jesus says…“You shall worship the Lord, your God, and him alone shall you serve.” And to the devil’s temptation power Jesus says…“You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.” It was in the desert that Jesus came to a deeper understanding of who he was, who God was, and what his mission was. And strengthened by the desert experience, Luke tells us that Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit and began teaching in the synagogues and healing the sick. God’s salvation had arrived in its’ fullness.
Many years ago on the cross-country trip I squandered an opportunity to experience the transformation of the sun-blasted plain of death in the desert into a landscape of sound, water, and life. I don’t plan on doing that again with the opportunity that God offers me this Lent. Strengthened by the Eucharist and armed with God’s Word I’m beginning my journey into the desert with the hope of coming to a greater understanding of who God is, who I am, and what my mission is. I hope you’ll join me.