About twenty years ago, I was fortunate to go on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. I went with a group of fellow pilgrims and our aim was to travel throughout Israel. following in the footsteps of Christ. We visited Bethlehem, Nazareth, and Jerusalem; we climbed the Mount of the Beatitudes; we walked throughout Jericho, looked into Jacob’s Well, stood in the place in Cana where Jesus changed the water into wine, and even knelt at the place where He was crucified. Everywhere we went, we took our Bibles with us and read the appropriate passages. As you can imagine, it was a grace-filled time, a moving experience, a life-changing experience. But the strongest impression, one which has stuck with me ever since, was from the experience of the desert – where Christ spent forty days and forty nights before starting His public life.
On this first Sunday of Lent, let’s remember that it was through the desert that Moses led the Israelites from slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land. It was from the desert that John the Baptist went to herald the Messiah and, soon after, Jesus followed to proclaim Himself Messiah. Our pilgrimage to the Holy Land helped me to realize the significance of the desert for Jesus and for those who first followed Him.
The desert is a purgatory, so to speak, that we must pass through to reach paradise; it is marked by sheer aridness. There is no vegetation, no bird life, and almost no animals at all. The silence is almost total. In its bleak landscape, nothing comes between the believer and God. Our Israeli tour guide told us that one either discovers God there or succumbs to despair.
Virtually no life thrives in the desert except the inner life. So, it is not surprising that it was the “Desert Fathers” who created a great tradition dedicated to fostering the inner life, which we know as “monasticism.” The need to foster that inner life has so profoundly marked Christianity that we are all now, in a sense, “children of the desert.”
Will we use this Lenten season to create a time and a space to nurture our spiritual lives? The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert and He remained there for forty days and nights. Like Jesus, we are invited to let the Holy Spirit lead us out into the desert this Lent where we can confront the devils that haunt our lives, and like Him, also triumph over them. That is the freedom, the hope, and the new life that this Lent offers us. Do we dare not make the most of this opportunity?
Let us pray. “O God, in today’s hectic world, it is so easy to get distracted and off-course. Please help us use the desert of this Lenten season to keep our priorities in order. Help us give our most important priorities the time, attention, and devotion they deserve. Please align our hearts to yours, so that loving and following your Son will always be our first priority. Help us also to love our friends and families well, and to be a good stewards of the gifts and responsibilities you have placed in our lives, without getting distracted by the things we lack. Please guide us through the desert and help us follow Christ Jesus, who lives and reigns with you now and forever. Amen.”