These Forty Days...
I love that little detail at the beginning of the gospel. After noting that Jesus was in the desert for 40 days and ate nothing during those days, when it was over, He was hungry! He was hungry after 40 days, just like you or I would be after one day of serious fasting! Except, although he was tempted, he didn’t cheat or fall to temptation like we so easily do halfway through a day of fasting. We even have trouble remembering to abstain from meat on Fridays!
How can we do better? Can we have a fruitful Lenten Season more like Christ’s experience in the desert and less like what we’re used to, like the Israelites in the desert? God would like each of us to become more purified and prepared through the work and graces of our 40 days. God would like each of us to believe it’s possible to grow in holiness and live more faithfully. Unlike the Israelites who did not have the benefit of life in Christ, we do and so it is in our power to allow God to help us experience Lent more like Christ.
In the second reading we heard the truth that is essential for a disciple of Christ. A truth which helps us face the challenges of daily life, and especially the challenges of our own Lenten journey in the desert. One who is saved by Christ is one who confesses with their mouth that Jesus is Lord and believes in their heart that God raised him from the dead. Therefore, at every Sunday Mass we proclaim that which we believe. With our lips in the creed, we say:
I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Only Begotten Son of God, born of the Father before all ages. God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father; through him all things were made. For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven, and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary and became man. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate, he suffered death and was buried, and rose again on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures. He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead and his kingdom will have no end.
This is a proclamation of what each of us believes. It is an affirmation of our salvation in Christ. It is a statement of fact spoken to the whole world. It expresses our identity, what we believe in our hearts and confess with our lips. It is a stable force that helps us to successfully navigate the world we are meant to be in but not of.
Bearing in mind this truth that brings us here today, we can contemplate the meaning of the Lenten season through reflection on the desert experience of the Israelites and of Jesus. In the first reading Moses is exhorting the people, teaching them, and giving them some foundational rules, as they prepare to enter the promised land after their 40 years in the desert. In this particular section he tells them that when they enter into the promised land, they are to show their gratitude to God and remain faithful.
Recall that God called the Hebrews out from among the Egyptians and by the Holy Spirit they were lead from slavery into freedom. They had a great many challenges, temptations, and failures while they were in the desert. In fact, they might not have been in the desert for 40 years if not for a few of those failures. During that time, God intended to purify them, to prepare them. They are to be a people called out, God’s own, sacred, and set apart.
During this desert journey, to be purified and prepared, it was imperative that they trust God and fast until he fed them. Essential that they pray to become humble, faithful, and obedient. Necessary that they give alms – serve each other and not seek power over others or a place above God. Yet, even with the closeness and care of God they found themselves falling to the temptations of the enemy. They increasingly suffered the consequences of their covenantal unfaithfulness, which was made difficult by their brokenness, suffering the concupiscence borne of original sin. Too many hearts and minds were unwilling and unable to humble themselves and live the first commandment, “The Lord is our God, the Lord alone! Therefore you shall love the Lord, your God, with your whole heart, and with your whole being, and with your whole strength” (Dt 6:4-5). And so, for 40 years they wandered. They were lost and found, lost, and found, repeatedly. Their desert experience was grueling, possibly joyless and unnecessarily long and deadly.
After having been baptized by John the Baptist and anointed by the Holy Spirit, encouraged by the words of the Father – Jesus freely went into the desert. In obedience to the Father, he followed the Holy Spirit to be tested for 40 days. For him it became a beautiful place of purification and preparation for his mission. He was truly tested in his humanity and, proved himself ready and purified. His success was anchored in fidelity. He fed on God's word and found strength in doing his Father's will. The Son journeyed into the desert wilderness to rebuke and reject Satan’s assault on the great commandment: “The Lord is our God, the Lord alone! Therefore you shall love the Lord, your God, with your whole heart, and with your whole being, and with your whole strength” (Dt 6:4-5). Tempted as we are, Jesus overcame sin not by his own human effort but by the grace and strength which his Father gave to him. His victory over sin and death won for us not only pardon for our sins but adoption as sons and daughters of God. His obedience to his Father’s will and his willingness to embrace the cross made a way for those who profess with their lips and believe in their hearts. His desert experience and the subsequent temptations during his 3 years of ministry provided for us the pre-eminent example of overcoming temptation and successfully battling with the enemy.
What is the difference between Jesus and the Israelites in the desert? Christ is fully and completely obedient to the Father. In the desert he was tested and emerged without sin. The Israelites were also called and lead into the desert, and they did not emerge until the worst of them, and their unfaithfulness was purged. Prepared fully for his ministry and to meet the challenges, represented by the three temptations, Jesus emerged from out of the desert knowing clearly who He is, why He is here and what needs to be done.
He emerged from the desert to do in Palestine as the Father had done in Egypt. He called the people to come out, to follow, to learn, to love. He drew them into what we could say was a Lenten desert journey amid the world of which they did not belong. Repent and believe, for the kingdom of God is at hand, he said. He taught them how to fast, to pray and to give alms – to love the Lord their God, alone, with their whole heart, whole being, whole strength – and to love their neighbor as themselves. Christ continues this work through the Church.
The Israelites had this same opportunity and entering the promised land as they emerged from the desert. But what happened? Once again, like so many times in their history, they sinned and turned away from God. No matter how God blessed them, saved them, forgave them… they constantly failed in their commitment to the covenant with God. That's the story of the human reality since the fall in the garden. Our commitments to God are weak. We are, and remain without Christ, fundamentally incapable of being faithful and remaining free. We are not doomed nor destined to repeat, like them, this cycle of being lost and found. But rather, if we seek and cling to Him, we will have God's grace to meet those challenges we face in the world.
Each year we are given this time as a period of particular attentiveness. He calls us to come out, to follow, to learn, to love. He draws us into what we could say is a Lenten desert journey amid the world of which we do not belong. Repent and believe, for the kingdom of God is at hand, he says. He teaches us again how to fast, to pray and to give alms – to love the Lord our God, alone, with our whole heart, whole being, whole strength – and to love our neighbor as ourselves with ever greater faithfulness.
So that then, we can emerge from these 40 days purification, and preparation, of formation – more ready, willing and able than ever before to listen to Him and to do what He says. To emerge from the desert at Easter, with great joy and thanksgiving - able to celebrate with our entire being, uncontrollably almost, impelled to celebrate the great goodness of God and the way in which God has raised us up among all creation. That we rise in Christ as he rises. That we are indeed made new creations in him.
We will come out of the desert of these 40 days of Lent, like the Israelites or like Christ. That's our choice. What we do during Lent, how we do it, the way in which we are open to God forming us. Enter it mindful of your failures and God's mercy. Trust what that love, that purifying love can do. As we look about ourselves and our world in this Lent we will see that Christ’s consistent reliance upon the first and greatest commandment at each of Satan’s temptations is the lesson to be learned and heeded in the rebellious and fractious world that we create and inhabit.
Fr. Blair Gaynes has been in the Diocese since 2008.