After the Exodus, the People of Israel experienced the forty years of wandering in the desert towards the Promised Land as a time of testing. Prior to starting his public ministry, Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert, where he prayed and fasted for forty days and was tempted.
These two turning-point events in the history of Israel and humanity as a whole had a common location: the desert. The desert is traditionally understood as a desolate place where the human being is deprived of every possible comfort and protection. There is no place to hide from the merciless attacks of the inhospitable elements. Heat, cold, hunger, thirst, and isolation quickly drive home the human being’s complete dependence, and the centrality of trust, hope, and love as sources of meaning in one’s life.
The forty-year period (symbolic in itself) in the desert for the Jewish people was comparable to a boot camp of sorts, in which they gradually grew into their new identity as the People of God. During this time of trial and tribulation, of vigorous exercise and testing, God, like a good coach, stood by them, and their trust, hope, and love became strong enough to be able to recognize the fulfillment of God’s promises as they were entering the Promised Land.
In Jesus’ desert experience, he was tempted to the core. In his humanity he was enticed by the enemy of human nature to reject his complete dependence on God, to take matters in his own hands, and save himself from the adversities of the desert environment. He was prompted (“if you are the Son of God”) to deny his human condition and claim powers that would cancel out his radical dependence on God. He was prompted to turn stones into bread and become self-sufficient, defy gravity by jumping off the pinnacle of the Temple unharmed, and become an instant celebrity. Finally, he was offered great political power by worshiping anything other than God. By consistently rejecting the temptations of undue power, he prepared the rest of his human life on earth to become the perfect revelation of God. In his life, death, and resurrection he revealed what it means to be a fully alive human being, a true image and likeness of God, namely, to act as if everything depended on him, but trusting in God as if everything would depend on God alone.
The forty days of Lent are an invitation to enter the desert with the Jewish people and, especially, with Jesus. During this time of transformation and growth, Christians are invited to dare to accept and embrace their complete dependence on God. By growing in inner freedom from those inordinate attachments in life that prevent them from trusting and loving God and neighbour, Christians become able to make significant sacrifices in acting out this trust and love.
To this end, when answering the call of Lent and creating mini-desert experiences, many Christians often choose to give up things or practices that give them comfort and joy in everyday life. Others may commit themselves to correcting or unlearning bad, selfish habits, or, to becoming better at doing acts of justice and charity. In general, however, all are invited to try to turn to God in prayer more intensely and earnestly. All these, one by one or combined, help to facilitate growth in inner freedom that enables a person to act as if everything would depend on that person, and to trust in God as if everything would depend on God alone. In short, the forty days of Lent are a time of testing or practice, during which Christians are invited to become better images and likenesses of God who will bring meaning and joy into the lives of their neighbour.
Wishing you and your loved ones a grace-filled Lent.