True Wilderness

Lent always begins with mystery: Jesus, newly-baptized, is led by the Spirit into the wilderness, and there he remains, amid the shifting desert sands, for forty days. It is a strange place to begin: for the ancient Hebrews, the wilderness was both a place of danger and the place of encounter with God. Intimacy and danger, solitude and temptation. Our best and our worst selves, encountered when there is no distraction. 

Geoffrey Harpham writes of St. Anthony, the second hermit in Christian tradition, that he went into the wilderness to know his own heart. When he had lived in the big city and saw dancing girls, he could not know whether they were the product of his fantasy, or whether they were actually there. But in the desert, when he saw dancing girls, he knew that he lusted in his heart. His time away from others became a mirror — a mirror in which he could see himself clearly, offer himself to God for purification, and return to human society more capable of love.

Perhaps this strange Lent, with its anxiety and social distancing, its closing of schools and cancellation of the worship which normally sustains our souls, is, after all, inviting us to walk in the steps of Jesus. Our very disorientation has the capacity to show us to our selves in a new way. If you are self-isolating, what do you find in your smaller life which gives you joy? Whom or what do you struggle to live without? What are your temptations, your anxieties, the buttons which are getting pushed? How can you bring all that to God, and offer it to God to be transformed by love?

And what can you offer to your neighbor? Do you know someone in a high-risk demographic to whom you could bring groceries, someone lonely who might be cheered by a phone call? Could your children make cards to send to a senior center, whose residents are not able to be visited right now? What light can you shed?

If you look closely at the ministry of Christ, you will see that he did not refuse Satan’s temptations once and for all. Rather, he transformed them. Satan had whispered to him of hunger, of the power to do good, of ways to prove that he was holy. Jesus spent the rest of his life on those issues, but on his own terms, not on those of Satan. Bringing the presence of God, rather than bemoaning his own powerlessness. How can you make this time of trial a doorway into something which gives life?

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