Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Thoughts in the Desert

We are in the midst once more of the penitential season of Lent.  Having just celebrated the 3rd Sunday, we look forward to Laetare Sunday this coming weekend, laetare being of course the Latin for, "O be glad!" or "Rejoice!"

However, that is not really the focus of my thoughts this day.  That being said, there is much value in reflecting on the fact that the Church is telling us to rejoice in our time of penance, to anoint our head with oil rather than look gloomy as the hypocrites do when we fast. 

When I was originally preparing to give this reflection several years ago, I really wanted to know what Lent is, aside from the fasting and the penance and the purple.  While I didn't have words for it then, what I knew I could see was the Way of Behaving, but I wanted to know what was the Way of Life which was the real point.

The first thing I looked to was the origin of the word "Lent."  That's pretty easy, it's from a word meaning "Spring," simply naming the season in which the Season falls.  Not sure where to turn next, I looked at the characteristics of Lent, namely the fact that it is 40 days long.

Now, many of you will note than if you tally the days between Ash Wednesday and Easter, the total is greater than 40.  Sundays are feast days, and are Sundays in Lent, not of it.

Okay, so what's so important about 40?  

If you know anything about the significant numbers in the bible, you have likely heard that 40 is a number denoting a penance.  40 days and 40 nights of rain.  40 years in the desert.  It's almost like the base unit of measurement when Israel gets put in timeout...

All joking aside, let us look to some examples of these 40 days of penance in the scripture.  They are numerous, so let's look at just a few.

The first one lands us with Moses.  He has gone up the mountain and received the tablets of the law, only to return and find that his own brother Aaron has made for the people a golden calf, to which he is leading the people in worship!  

Having broken the original tablets and destroyed the calf, he has pleaded to God and is now again upon the mountain, receiving the tablets once more.  It is here that something truly remarkable happens, as recounted by Exodus 34:28-29.

The next encounter I found was with the prophet Elijah.  You can read the background here.  At the end of chapter 18 of the first book of Kings, we find the great story of Elijah slaughtering the prophets of Baal.  You know, the one where he taunts them, saying, "Call louder, perhaps your God is taking a nap?"  I love that story...

In fear of his life, Elijah runs into the desert, seeking death (1 Kings 19:3&4).  It is there that an angel appears, twice waking him to give him a jug of water and hearth cake, tell him both times, "Get up and eat, else the journey will be too long for you!"

Strengthened by this food, he then walks for 40 days and 40 nights to the mountain of God - Horeb, the same mountain upon which Moses received the Law (Sinai and Horeb are the same).  It is upon this mountain that Elijah experiences something like what Moses did - a manifestation of God.  (1 Kings 19:11-13a).

Again, the desert, the mountain, the fast, and the encounter with God.

The last fast of 40 days that I wish to look at is that of our Lord Himself, when he is tempted by Satan in the desert (Matthew 4:1-11).  Not only does Christ face the tempter himself and best him, he gives us an example of how our fasting strengthens us for spiritual combat, as man does not live by bread alone, but upon every word that comes from the mouth of God.

It is interesting to note here that God has only ever spoken one Word, the second person, the only-begotten Son.  One does not live by bread alone, but by the Word of God, the second person, in whom we live, move and have our being.

So the question now, is, what has all this been leading to?


The common theme among these stories of 40 day penances seem to always include the sinfulness of Man, a fast, a desert, a mountain, and an encounter with God.  For Noah, it was Ararat.  For Moses and the people of Israel, and for Elijah, it was Sinai (Horeb).  For us, it is the cross.

As the Brothers of St. John teach, the cross is the summit of revelation.  While His life of ministry teach us, there was no moment of more profound truth and beauty than the death of Our Lord.

Some would say that His teaching is the most important, but his teaching points to and is only meaningful through the crucifixion.  Some look to the resurrection, but that is only the inevitable once Christ gave up His life.  It's like pushing a ball filled with air below the surface of the water.  Its very nature is to rise, and so it is that LIFE cannot die.

At the cross, Christ gives Himself to us in the most profound way imaginable.  Our guilt as a race was so great that nothing we could possibly do would ever bridge the gap, so to save us, He came to be one of us, the Eternal Word made Flesh, who bore our sins in His Sacred Humanity, so that a gift only God could make could be given on behalf of humanity.  

This is the meaning of Lent, then.  It is the journey to the cross, the hill of Calvary, the summit of revelation.  It is the time when we purify ourselves in the desert of privation, through fasting, almsgiving and acts of penance.  We mortify ourselves that we might have the strength to enter into spiritual combat. 

Above all, we seek to ascend the mountain and truly encounter our God, to the point where we are truly transformed, our faces "radiant as the sun."  Lent is a time of mourning, for it is now that we are separated from our Bridegroom.  It is the time where we rend our hearts for the sins which we commit, the acts of selfishness in which we reject the most perfect gift to ever be given.  

We seek to come to the cross, to gaze upon Our Lord, and to truly be able to lift a pure heart in praise and thanksgiving to the One True Living God.


Give us the desire to seek for you.
Give us a thirst for the living waters.
May our Lenten disciplines be
Inflamed with your divine charity.

We beg of you.

Be with us in the desert,
Strengthen us in temptation,
Guide us to the Cross,
That we might come to know You,
The One True God.

All these things we ask of you, Father,
in the name of your only-begotten Son,
the eternal Word who was made flesh,
and whose sacrifice we ask to share in this Lent,
by the power of the Holy Spirit, 
You Who reign as One God,
Forever and Ever.


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