The rhythm of the Christian calendar brings us each year to the first Sunday in the season of Lent, the Sunday on which we hear the story of Jesus’ temptation in the desert. Before he can embark upon his ministry of healing and teaching, he is, according to the Gospel of Matthew, led into the desert and into a confrontation with the devil; into a 40-day period of hunger, silence, and temptation.
The “wilderness” in the Bible, the literal wilderness of Sinai, looks to those of us in North America more like a desert. Rocky, barren, seeimingly devoid of life, stretching across a great landscape of emptiness broken only by peaks and valleys. And 40 ~ in the Bible, the number 40 means a lot, or many. Forty days for the flood from which only Noah and his family and the animals were saved. Forty years that the Hebrew people wandered the Sinai wilderness after their escape from slavery in Egypt. Forty days for Jesus’ purifying and preparatory time, hungry ~ and alone, but for the tempter.
The pattern of the church year invites us to revisit this desert time at the onset of Lent. “Revist?,” you may well ask, and add that your own desert time lasted, or continues to last, much longer than 40 days. Perhaps you have only recently been tossed into the desert and left lying in a heap on the cold, rocky, ground. Perhaps some time has passed and you have come to know the terrain well. Perhaps you have encountered the angels who, finally, arrived to tend Jesus. Perhaps you have walked out of the desert and into a new version of your life.
In any case, this season, and this Sunday, invite you to take a look around. There is always something to observe in the desert. If nothing else, the sun rises and the sun sets, placing you in the midst of a much broader universe than you may be able to absorb. But there are also flickers of movement in the desert. The shadows separate into distinct patterns, merge into a haze, separate again, and fade. Small mammals and reptiles make momentary forays into the light or into the darkness, seeking sustenance. Birds occasionally soar overhead, briefly marking the stark landscape with their own pegasauran shadows.
Look around. Look around your own desert. Look up, look down, look through.
Jesus, as far as we know, took nothing from the wilderness with him when he walked back out, into a world in which food and water and companionship were plentiful. But he carried with him the experience of having been hungry and thirsty and utterly alone, an experience which marked him forever as a man for others.
Look around. What will you carry with you; what do you carry with you, that marks you as a woman or man for others?
(Image: Arches National Park in Utah.)