I said it on Ash Wednesday, and I’ll say it again, Lent is one of my favorite times of the Church Year. What an amazing time of intention and prayer. When else do we get to be called out of our normal lives to focus for a few weeks on our mortality—and all that it means?
In effect, we’ve been called out into a desert life. We’ve entered a barren time with very little ornamentation; fewer distractions and crutches for the imagination; no baptisms—not even holy water in the font to remind us of our baptism. Instead, like Jesus, we’ve been driven out into a deserted place. It’s a place where we’re not afforded all of the comforts of our usual faith experiences. In essence, we’ve been drawn by the Holy Spirit into a spiritual desert.
The desert is a dangerous place. In the desert there are species of poisonous snakes, scorpions, spiders, even giant wasps. This is to say nothing of an arid, and unforgiving landscape in which very little grows or thrives.
Often in Scripture the desert is a place where strange and miraculous things happen. Only last week we read about the prophets Elijah and Elisha as they went out into the desert so that the mantle of prophetic office could be passed to Elisha. And it was there that Elijah was carried away in a fiery chariot.
We also remember that it was in the desert where God called Israel into covenant to be God’s people. It was there that God gave them the Law, and began forming what would become a nation of God’s chosen people.
Likewise, it was in an unnamed place in the desert in which Abram or Abraham (the forefather of three world religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam) offered hospitality to three angels—these angels who we understand as prefiguring the Holy Trinity…
But the desert is a dangerous place—even a spiritual desert can be dangerous if we allow it. This is especially true if we lose sight of our purpose in a spiritual desert; namely to put away distractions and allow God to transform our hearts. There is also danger if we allow our own false sense of piety to become an impediment to loving others. It might even be said that lack of intention, or empty practices can frustrate our hopes for survival and even make the space more uninhabitable for others as well.
However, what Lent and this spiritual desert asks of us is the work of looking more closely at ourselves—digging deeper into our spiritual resources to continually find God. In fact, it’s much like finding water in a desert. In a desert, we rarely find surface water—instead, we have to dig below the surface near the bedrock. We have to find the places where life is thriving, and dig until we find the places where the water has rested.
In the same way in our Lenten desert, we have the opportunity to experience God in a very different way. Without any of the symbols, or trappings that we’re given throughout the rest of the year, we’re left to search out and dig for the places where God can be found. We must cling to the past promises and faithfulness of God to get us through. Without distractions or too many images to help us, the experience is simply one that lays us bare. It makes us learn about ourselves, and our short-comings. And because there’s very little in the landscape, there’s really no place for us to hide, or obscure our failings. There is no cheap grace here…
But, like so many other things in our spiritual lives, there is more to it than just rigor. There are the moments of grace that sustain us. There is the hope that what has been revealed to us will stay with us long after the Lenten desert time. And more importantly, there is the promise of the Easter mystery, which is for us the promise that the mortality that we’ve spent all of this time meditating upon will one day be transformed, and made incorrupt. And then—then what we have experienced of God in this desert will no longer be veiled, but made complete when we are resurrected one day.
So for those who choose to hang on through this desert season, the result is that we just may see a little clearer God’s presence in the world. We may love a bit more, even those who are difficult. But we’ll also have learned to dig a little deeper to find the sustenance that we need in the desert. So that in our toughest times, we can remember that God can be found, even in the most unforgiving of places. And just as we’ve come to know of the Lenten journey; we know that the promise of resurrection is always at the end.
On Ash Wednesday, we were given the invitation to enter into a holy season of Lent. Like any invitation, it is up to us whether or not we accept. In the end, like everything else, it is really a matter of the heart as to whether or not we enter in. There is no guarantee that it will be an easy season—but if we’re willing to trust and be compelled by God’s Holy Spirit, we may find more than sand and danger. We may find the relationship with God in Christ that we seek.