Follow Christ on the transformative journey of Lent.
Well today as we know marks the first Sunday in the penitential season of Lent: a time set apart to pray, to reflect, and prepare for sharing the journey of Jesus through Holy Week to resurrection. Any journey, especially that involving discipleship and genuine struggle, the genuine struggle that that entails, requires preparation.
Lent has been observed in some form since at least the 2nd Century AD, when a period of 40 days was observed as a preparation for Easter, which was also the day on which Baptism would take place for new initiates after they had been through literally years of preparation and participation in the life of the Christian community, when all Christians would renew their faith in and their commitment to their Risen Lord.
The number "40" also has always had special biblical significance regarding preparation. We remember that on Mount Sinai, preparing to receive the Ten Commandments, the Book of Exodus tells us that "Moses stayed there with the Lord for 40 days and 40 nights, without eating any food or drinking any water" (Exodus 34:28). Elijah walked "40 days and 40 nights" to the mountain of the Lord, Mount Horeb (another name for Mount Sinai) (I Kings 19:8). But Most importantly, Jesus fasted and prayed for "40 days and 40 nights" in the desert before He began His public ministry (Matthew 4:2).
It is this time of apartness in the wilderness that Lent echoes, and why it is the first gospel reading for this season. For Jesus, his journey of Sonship, his ministry begins at baptism. But he doesn’t then set off with newfound confidence to change the world. In fact, quite the opposite. We are told that: ”Full of the Holy Spirit, he was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.” His calling can only be fulfilled if he is ready to surrender all to it, and dedicate himself totally to God. And knowing how this will be achieved requires reflection, discernment, prayer, and struggling with the options and the temptations that such a calling would evoke. So the Spirit of God sends him into the wilderness, in ancient times a place regarded as a place of encounter with God. For Jesus, this is a necessary time of preparation, of discernment of God’s will and test of the direction that his ministry and his messaiahship would take.
The location of the temptations is important. I’ve mentioned this before so you might be familiar with it. - The traditional site is a steep-sided tall mountain on the Jordan Valley escarpment, overlooking Jericho at the top end of the of the Dead Sea. It is a tiring climb to the summit, from where, overlooking the Jordan Valley, you can see - if you’re looking forward you are looking East, Left you are looking, right you’re looking South, behind you are looking West. So looking Left, north towards the fertile region of Galilee – the home of Jesus and where he has friends. Behind one, from the summit, you can see in the distance, 18 miles away across the desert hills way in the distance as the crow flies, the summit of the Mount of Olives, the other side of which lies the city of Jerusalem, the centre of religious and secular authority. And below this mountain, is the fertile oasis of Jericho, with lush fruit, olive and palm groves, and the luxurious winter palaces and gardens of the Herodian Kings and Governors, which were there in Jesus time and the ruins of which you can still see today.
The geography allows an interesting analogy of the options for his ministry. Standing on that mountain, those options are laid before him. Should he go back to his homeland and establish his ministry amongst friends on the fringes of Jewish society and at the point of encounter between cultures and religions…. After all Galilee was on the edge of Gentile territory and right on the trade routes between and Asia and Egypt, and between Europe and Arabia ? Should he first go to Jerusalem, the seat of religious and political power, and confront the religious and political injustices of the day? Or given the status that God has afforded him, should he seek the power and wealth that the palaces in the city of Jericho, laid out before him, represented?
We are familiar with the temptations. First, he could use his God-given power and status to fulfil his own personal needs. To turn stones to bread would do that, but more than that it would have two other effects: it would only be a temporary response to a physical need and it would entice people to follow him. But rather, it is the causes of physical, social and spiritual hunger that need to be addressed. Notice that when he does miraculously feed people by the Sea of Galilee, this is not done as a miracle to garner support, but a sign of discipleship, faith and shared responsibility.
In the second temptation, Jesus Is urged to perform a miraculous act to earn people’s immediate response. People are hungry for spectacle and performance. Has humanity changed much? But great actions are soon forgotten when the next attraction comes along. Faith in the superficial is not real faith, nor can it sustain us through the difficulties and struggles of daily living.
And that other temptation affects us all – to seek wealth, power and status. Looking down at the Herodian palaces and gardens, this would surely be a natural temptation. But of course, it is true that the more we acquire, the more we want. And as we acquire more, it is easy to move further away from living our lives according to the things and values that really matter, or giving time to those things that have a deeper meaning and put us in touch with God, who is there, always present, waiting to be encountered in the silence, in the simple things, in the mystery of nature, and the joy of love; in the simplicity in the space of simplicity, or evening the emptiness of the desert.
No wonder the desert was regarded as a place of encounter with God, where nothing can distract us from our dependency on God. That is why monasticism was born in the deserts of the Middle East. Lent is a time to take ourselves into the spiritual desert. To detach ourselves from those things which get between us and him, and to rediscover his closeness to us. In Lent we are reminded of our Baptismal promises; invited to repent of where we have gone wrong, and reflect on God’s on-going purpose for our lives. Such times of spiritual stillness, quiet and being alone with God are essential for our spiritual growth and our relationship with God. And yet, in the modern world, time and stillness are two things that are hardest to find. Is it a surprise that so often we seem to have lost touch with God, even though he never loses touch with us? That is very important - even when we think we lose touch with God he never loses touch with us. those words in Romans I think are really profound - ‘The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart’. How often do we really reflect on that? and say the word, the Spirit of God is near you. So often we don’t discern that.
Today’s readings afford an opportunity to reflect on what are the temptations that distract us from our journey of faith and limit our faithfulness to Christ or our diligence in discipleship? The temptations that the Spirit sends to Jesus in him have universal significance, but are also ones that to some degree we are all susceptible. We want the easy way out. We desire to meet our own needs above all others. We desire popularity, wealth and influence. Jesus shows us the way, and sets the path that we are called to follow.
The very gift of life means that we will be tested That testing can be a source of despair if we haven’t learnt to discern the presence of God, but if we have taken the time to know him, then we will know that God is with us; that he does carries us through whatever temptations even whatever struggles we may face, and that ultimately he brings us through perhaps at times a rocky wilderness path, to a destination of light and joy and peace. Beyond crucifixion always lies resurrection, however difficult that path may be.
It is when we are, like Jesus, in the wilderness, but put our dependence on God, and remain open to him that we receive the grace and strength to respond to his call, and be witnesses ourselves of his grace and love in the world. That’s what, ultimately, the journey of Lent invites us to achieve, and to share, beyond the struggle of our daily lives, beyond the daily temptations, to go beyond it all to journey with Christ, to let him take our hands our hearts and our souls and journey with him to the ultimate glory.