This week, as we enter into the season of Lent once more, we are invited to travel with Jesus into the wilderness.
It’s not always an easy place to be. Wild places test us physically and emotionally. They can be exhausting, uncomfortable, even dangerous. And for these reasons, as my family will tell you, I have not always been a particularly enthusiastic camper. But even I have to concede that some of the most profound and transforming experiences of my life have occurred in places far off the beaten track, under broad skies, worlds away from the complicated suburban life-support system I’ve carefully assembled for myself. Despite—or perhaps because of—the sore muscles and blistered feet, I’ve had the experience in these places of feeling more alive and more connected to the earth and my true purpose; of being closer to God.
So sometimes, when I’m running late for the train, or trying to stem a never-ending tide of emails, or asking a child for the umpteenth time to pack the dishwasher, I find myself longing for the simple, elemental experience of being alone on a walking track or of sleeping under the stars.
And I wonder why that is. When life becomes too busy or overwhelming, what is it that draws us out of our comfort zones and into the wilderness?
The gospel for the first Sunday in Lent this year (Matthew 4:1–11) might give us some clues.
First, we read that Jesus is led into the wilderness by the Spirit. This is part of God’s plan. There is something in the desert for Jesus to see and experience, but there is also something for him to resolve.
This passage appears immediately after the account of his baptism, which marks the beginning of his public ministry and of his long journey to the cross and beyond. And so, we are told, Jesus is led into the wilderness to be tempted and tested on a number of fronts—on his priorities, on his relationship with the Father, on who he is going to be and how he is going to follow his calling—things we too need to consider in response to our own baptisms, our own callings.
The next sentence contains further clues, as well as what I once heard described as perhaps the greatest instance of understatement in all of the Bible. Jesus fasts for an extraordinary 40 days and 40 nights and after that, the gospel tells us, he was ‘very hungry’. (I live with teenagers who don’t seem to be able to go 40 minutes without complaining they’re very hungry.) The author wants us to understand that this is no walk in the park for Jesus. He is exhausted and starving, and has been tested to the limits of his endurance, both physically and spiritually. His time in the wilderness has shown him what it means to be human and to be really, really hungry.
This can happen to us too when we spend time in nature. We become more aware of our own bodies and their needs: for food and water, for warmth and shelter, for companionship. Out in the wild, exposed to the elements, we experience ourselves as small creatures in a very big creation. It’s hard to avoid the fact of our own vulnerability and mortality; our limits and finitude; our dependence on God for the very breath in our lungs.
In the wilderness, we can no longer deceive ourselves. Hungry, tired and footsore, but also awestruck and inspired, we find we are not little gods after all—not the independent, self-sufficient beings we thought ourselves to be—but creatures, placed in a wild and beautiful creation by a loving and utterly trustworthy God.
In the wilderness—the metaphorical wilderness we can find ourselves in during times of crisis, as well as the literal, physical wilderness—often we feel closer to our creator; our prayers become deeper, richer, more heartfelt. Pope Francis has observed that the desert ‘is the place where God speaks to the heart of the human person, and where prayer is the answer’ (Angelus address, 21 February 2021). We begin to see how things are connected and are reminded of the need for humility, compassion and care. We also start to see that our creatureliness and dependence on God are not things to be regretted or fought against but gifts to be accepted gratefully and to be embraced as the conditions for our true fulfilment as humans.
But while we might occasionally glimpse this truth on the hiking trail or at a camp fire, or even in a hospital emergency room, most of the time we tend to forget it. Instead, we put our trust in ourselves: in careers, possessions, appearances and reputations; even in good causes. We embrace countless distractions to keep us from candid self-examination or quiet contemplation of our need for God. As Anglican theologian and former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has observed, ‘Being a creature is in danger of becoming a lost art.’
Lent doesn’t rush us to the happy ending; it doesn’t take easy shortcuts or try to avoid the pain and difficulty that often go hand in hand with the joy of being human. It takes us right into and through the wilderness; it makes us face our humanity and take it seriously, with all its heartache and beauty; it shows us our hunger, our dependence on God, and in so doing, it reveals that the way through to new life is via humility and trust—a path that can be simultaneously unnerving and exhilarating. Sometimes in the wilderness, and in the life of faith, the line between terror and wonder blurs.
The temptation that Jesus faces in the wilderness—and that he steadfastly rejects—is to take a shortcut, denying or avoiding his humanity and mortality by jumping straight to an easy but fatally compromised ‘happy ending’. Rather than choosing power and self-sufficiency—the ‘quick fix’—he embarks on a more difficult and costly path. But Jesus recognises that everything he needs, and everything worth having, comes from the hand of God. In the face of an uncertain and difficult future, he chooses instead to trust.
So as we embark again on this Lenten journey, travelling with Jesus deep into the wild regions of our lives, may we experience our own hunger and profound need of God. And may we listen attentively to the quiet voice of the Spirit, so that we might learn to trust the God who created us and who longs to give us all that we need.
Melbourne Catholic03 March 2024
Melbourne Catholic01 March 2024