First Sunday of Lent
by Lucinda M. Vardey
To follow Jesus is to die and be reborn, not once but many times. Entering the desert of Lent is to allow us to focus on the experience of this dying to what was before, and being reborn to what is to come in us at Easter. The mystics in our tradition knew this well—it’s part of the ongoing process of transformation Jesus calls us to in our humanity, so that his divinity can more fully dwell within.
I’d like to focus on 3 aspects of what must surely have been experienced by Jesus in the desert while dying to his former self and being reborn as Messiah, Son of God. As the second reading today from Peter states “He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit.”
The first aspect must invariably be the overcoming of fear. Fear is a human survival instinct, shared also by other living creatures. We fear when in dangerous situations that causes our lives to be threatened. Setting out into the desert then is to not only experience, but confront, that basic instinct for survival.
What would be the common fears? Not knowing what or when we’d eat or have access to water, where we would find a safe place to rest. Alone without any protection we’d be encountering “the wild beasts.” These beasts, as we learn from the writings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, are the greatest threat to a human in the desert. But we also know from these Desert dwellers that when personal fear is overcome wild beasts can become our friends.
As in many other religious traditions, particularly that of indigenous people, those chosen to lead communities or tribes undergo a process of initiation, the last being the overcoming of fear. This includes living alone in a forest with no provisions, just as Jesus did in the desert. We are told in Mark’s gospel that Jesus was tempted by Satan, and surely fear would be one of those temptations. Apart from being a basic survival instinct, fear can be, and usually is, a temptation.
Fear tempts us in imagining a threat or a situation, an unfavourable outcome, suspicions of what others think of us, or what harm can be done to us. And in these temptations we remove ourselves from God. Fear is also experienced by degrees: we may never find ourselves alone in the Sahara or the northern wilderness of Canada, but we can, quite easily, be overtaken by worry. Worry is a subset of fear because it can spiritually paralyze us, keeping us apart from God. Jesus taught that worrying was basically a waste of time, all the energy put into it would not extend a single hour to our lives. And, Padre Pio of Pietrelcina, wrote in a letter of spiritual direction that “worrying is an insult to the Divine.”
Jesus teaches us that the way we deepen our faith is to face fear straight on, and by doing so learn to trust in God’s protection and God’s ways. There could be no prominent place for fear in what Jesus had to undergo in his 3 years of ministry. And even as he sweat blood in the garden of olives, he faced again those temptations of fear — “get behind me Satan”— because he knew what was coming and he accepted it as God’s will. How else could he have endured what he saw would be ahead of him unless he disallowed fear to accompany him? During the night in Caiphas’ prison, the following day when persecuted, sentenced and scourged, carrying his cross, and his death by crucifixion.
The second aspect of Jesus’ desert time is growth in faith. No doubt he fed himself with plants, and maybe like John the Baptist ate locusts and wild honey. But faith, as Mother Teresa taught, is a fruit of prayer. Jesus prayed all the time in the desert—in fact during his ministry he frequently went into wildernesses and mountains to pray. Alone for 40 days he prayed and undoubtedly, as the Angels waited on him, he saw the fruits of faith ripen and feed him.
Performing his miracles Jesus spoke first of faith—if you believe I can make you well, your faith has made you well. Ye of little faith! Faith the size of a mustard seed grows into a tree where birds nest in its branches. Once fear has been overcome there’s not much else in the desert to distract you from praying. Prayer then feeds the soul, feeds the body, keeps you alive, and breeds trust in the wisdom of God.
Prayer strengthens our resolve, accompanies us in our shedding of the former and provides us with peace.
And this brings me to the third aspect of Jesus in the desert. Peace. Jesus is at peace. His great peace is what attracts others to him. He speaks with confidence, he stretches out his hand and heals, he feeds, comforts, restores, reveals, and after his resurrection, he greets his disciples with “peace be with you” and “be not afraid.”
As followers of Jesus we journey with him; we are called to not only imitate him but be his friend. And so Lent is the opportunity to dwell with him in our own desert, and allow him to teach us, through the Spirit’s grace, to confront what frightens us, what keeps us from growing in faith, what keeps us from wholeheartedly trusting in God’s goodness, and therefore being at peace.
And may we, when ready, step out confidently to follow the will of God for each of us, trusting that, with Jesus by our side, we can overcome the obstacles on the path.