Having entered another year, we started going through the liturgical seasons of our Christian calendar. We have now entered the season of Lent; the forty days preceding Easter. Lent is observed with fasting, almsgiving, acts of penance and other forms of disciplined spiritual devotion. It naturally inclined us to reduce in remorse, reflections and prayers for the frailties of our life that estranges us from God. In the Church, the absence of joyful music, alleluias, and the omission of the Gloria in excelsis featured the solemnity and seriousness of the penitential reduction. Relatively, the surrendering of habitual lifestyles during Lent appropriately aligns with this natural impetus on individual lives.
Jesus’ forty days of fasting in the wilderness after his baptism has been observed throughout the Church as the prime emphasis of Lent. John’s baptism is of repentance of sins, which disqualified Jesus, but he volunteered to undergo the baptism of John for the sake of our sins. Though, it was an entire contradiction given the sinless nature of Jesus Christ, he did so for our sake. Taking this background into consideration, it is appropriate that we begin each Lenten season with the imposing of ashes crosses on our foreheads. This reminds us of the spiritual baptism of repentance we all go through in Lent as we look towards the resurrection of Jesus where we shall all receive spiritual rebirth.
I have decided to make this Lenten reflection on the scene of Jesus’ activities; the wilderness. It was where he fasted, encountered temptations while praying and being alone with God. It is why this brief reflection is entitled, ‘The Wilderness of Lent’.
Geographical wilderness is not common in our part of the world; hence it needs some outset explanation. What is wilderness? Wilderness is basically land that is mostly wild and rarely inhabited or unfit for permanent human settlement. In the Near East it is characteristically dry, rough, uneven, and desolate and largely intertwined with dry watercourses. But it is not altogether dry or barren, during wet rainy season, it provides seasonal pastures for flocks.
In the Bible there are several wilderness lands identified by name and related to cities, persons and events. Hagar wandered in the land of Beersheba – Genesis 21: 14. The Israelites went through several wilderness lands on their way to the Promised Land. David escaping Saul hid in three wilderness lands, Ziph (1 Sam. 23: 14-15), in the wilderness of Moan (vv. 24-25) and in the wilderness of En-gedi (24: 1). And in the NT Gospels, Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness of Judea after his baptism (Is. 40:3; Matt. 3: 1-3; Mark 1: 2-4; Lk. 3: 1-6; John 1: 23).
The ambiguity of the wilderness
Taking the above texts into consideration, we come to terms with why the wilderness becomes a prime theme occupying both testaments of the Bible. It is important to note that while the wilderness is a dry, barren, rough, dusty land etc.., it also provides pastures for animals. This geographical scenario provides the background context of the ambiguity of the wilderness. It was there that Hagar and her son Ishmael were cast out and abandoned, possibly to die (Gen. 16. 1-16); but it was also exactly where they God met and saved them (Gen. 16: 17-20).
In the wilderness the people of Israel found both refuge and protection from the Egyptians (Ex. 16: 1ff). They went through about nine wilderness lands before they finally entered the Promised Land, where they achieved nationhood. They feared they could die of hunger in the wilderness (Ex.16:3), but right there God fed them with manner from heaven. The wilderness is both great and terrible (Deut. 1:19). But though terrible, lifeless, empty, mountainous and dusty, the wilderness is where God was expected to return (Is. 40:3). It remains in the Bible a place of ambiguity; holding both danger and salvation.
The wilderness of Lent
The season of Lent in various respects is like a wilderness. Though, it might impact natural inclination on Christians, it is a spiritually rich season, which elevates us towards God. Though Lent may feel as a threat to our life because we don’t usually want to expose the deep secrets of our lives, even in confession, it is our prerequisite for salvation. In being reduced to humility and remorse, Lent helps us to let go of the impasses of life that continually holds us captive. We are challenged to be courageous in facing our own vulnerabilities that we normally shy away from. It invites us to inward discovering of ourselves against the goodness and holiness of God. It calls us to learn about ourselves; who God calls us to be and who we want to be through our response.
Since Lent is like the wilderness, we encounter discomforts when we face the realities of the humdrumness of our lives. This is the truth about Lent. We discover no easy way to deal with the shortfalls of our lives; no shortcut to deal with ourselves in Lent. The best way is to be honest in repentance before God. The first truth Jesus told Nicodemus is that, ‘no one can see the Kingdom of God unless he is born again’ (John 3: 3). There is absolutely no other way around it, hard as it may be, it is the way to receive God’s grace and mercy. We are reminded as Christians by the ashes we receive each Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. In doing that, we explore and discover our own lives. In that discovery, we find the spaciousness of God’s grace and love; our discovery therefore, does stop in terror, but in hope for the very salvation we crave.
Lent has often been taken as a time to escape or avoid unwanted habits for 40 days. Nothing is against this tradition, but if we are not careful, it can turn into a ‘spiritual disaster’. Some people experience greater adverse and harm from what they gave up than the good it impacts. What we do in Lent is far less important than who we become. Our Lenten emphasis should not be too much on what we surrender, but who are we becoming. We leave behind our old landscapes; our patterns and attitudes of life as we move with Christ towards Calvary.
In that spiritual movement, we lift our eyes upwards in faith beyond our humdrum lives and experiences to God, our loving Father who awaits to restore us to himself in a new way of relationship. It is the relationship that Jesus have with his father that helped him overcame the three most hazardous temptations enticingly posed to him by Satan to derail him. It is the new relationship which Jesus engraved on us Christian to live by.
Best wishes for a deep and meaningful reflection, meditation and prayers as emulate Jesus on his wilderness journey of the Cross. May we, during this Lent rise or descend to the level Christ sets for us as we wait to meet him anew in the resurrection morning.
Archbishop Leonard Dawea