By John H. Howard, C.J.M
Does anyone know what the word Lent means? Not the spiritual meaning, just the word itself. It is an old English word for spring. The time went the days were “Lenten.” What would you say is the most common symbol of Lent in the liturgical texts? I’ll give you a hint; it is not a thing but a place. I’ll give you a second hint. Jesus spent forty days there. The desert! The desert, both in Scriptures and, is a place of contrasts, and we can also say a place of ambiguities. Physically, it appears dead or close to death. Yet we know that when rain falls in the desert it blossoms to incredible beauty.
Personally, I love desert plants. I see them as examples of strength and resiliency. They adapted to very harsh conditions and survived. They thrive on minimum resources and nothing seems to kill them. To me they symbolize the people who have gone through the worse of circumstances but still blossomed.
The desert is a harsh place, a place of extremes. It knows high heat and freezing cold. It is a place of life and a place of death. In Scriptures, the desert is also a place of passage. The People of Israel left the slavery of Egypt on their way to the Promised Land. Their desert experience was a time of cleansing and preparation. It was a time of hope for a homeland that was just a distant promised; it took them a very long time to reach it but for those who persevere it was worthwhile.
The desert can represent the difficulty encountered by one leaving a sinful and destructive situation, such as a person abandoning an addiction or a destructive relationship. He or she might feel an immediate relieve but things often get worse before they get better. That can be a desert experience. When the children of Israel first left the slavery of Egypt they were elated. They soon found out that freedom was a lot of work. It didn’t take long before they were yearning for their old problems, even if it was called slavery and humiliation. They only remembered there was plenty of food; they only recalled “the flesh pots and the onions of Egypt” as the good old days, not the condition they were in. People often return to their old problems rather than keep walking toward a better life, a Promised Land.
We read in Exodus that the Hebrews in the desert soon looked for quick and easy solutions. In their case it was the worship of the Golden Calf, the false god which promised what it couldn’t give. For some it may take the form of a business deal with low morality ratings, a get rich quick scheme, or another religion that promises easy salvation. In other words, the kind of desert that Jesus experienced represents to us a place of temptations. The temptations are seeking easy solutions or returning to one’s old problems. Mark does not list the temptations Jesus experienced, but we know from other Evangelists that they were temptations of easy answers. Jesus was invited to accept riches and power, providing he gave up his mission with all its risks and sufferings.
Scriptures teach us much though the symbolism of the desert. It teaches us that difficult circumstances can make us stronger or cause us to fall apart. In other words, it gives us the opportunity to blossom or to wither away. For the People of Israel, the desert was in the end a place of conversion. After the episode of the Golden Calf they realized that there were no shortcuts to happiness. They accepted God’s guidance in the Ten Commandments, renewed their Covenant with him and kept walking toward the Promised Land.
The difficulties we encounter in our life have parallels to those of the People of Israel in the desert. We are given the opportunity to mature spiritually and have a real adult relationship with God. Everyone has dry spells in their relationships, their business and their spiritual lives. Sometimes these dry spells turn into minor or major desert experiences. When this happens, it is not usually the solutions that are lacking, as much as the will to pursue them. To pick an easy example, it is not the diets that are lacking but the will to stay on them long enough to lose the desired weight. In general, it is not difficult to find volunteers for a project, but it is hard to find one that has the will to stay with it until the end.
The desert of Lent is a time and a place of preparations, the symbol of a spring of new life to come. In the desert, the People prepared themselves for a new life in the Promised Land. Jesus went to the desert to prepare himself for his mission. After the baptism by John, Jesus could have jumped into action. He chose to take the time to think and to pray. By doing so he gave us all a lesson. It is helpful to take time to reflect before making a serious decision or engage into action. On the other hand, it is as important not to make retreats a way of life, and excuse to do nothing. I once worked with a pastor who always had the same answer to any question asked, “I’ll pray over it.” The problem was he never seemed to come back from his prayers with an answer. If Moses had stayed in front of the Burning Bush we would not have the Ten Commandments.
The other symbol that is used in this weekend’s readings is just the opposite of the desert, it is the Flood. The Flood represents what can destroy us as a consequence of our sins. It can be overwhelming and destroy our life as we know it. But what is also the source of life. As Saint Peter teaches in the second reading, the Flood can also be seen as a symbol of Baptism. At the end of Lent, at the end of the desert, there is the promise of living waters that will give us life. It says to us that whatever are the dry spells or the deserts in our lives, we should know that there is a solution at the end. There are no easy answers to difficult problems. There are solutions for those who have the courage to pursue them and the humility to ask for help.