by Thomas Kleinert
In Lent we follow Jesus into the wilderness. Mark tells us that Jesus—still wet from his baptism we imagine; things are happening fast—is driven out into the wilderness by the Spirit. “He was in the wilderness 40 days, tested by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him” (Mark 1:13). Wild beasts and angels—God’s people had long felt ambivalent about the wilderness. It was a desolate and dangerous place, undomesticated and unsafe, the abode of demons.
But it also lived in their memory and in God’s as the place and season of first love: “I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness, in a land not sown” (Jeremiah 2:2). For 40 years, Israel wandered in the wilderness, and it wasn’t all honeymoon. The covenant partners got to know each other, discovered each other’s limits, but Israel also discovered God’s faithful presence and providence: “The Lord sustained Jacob in a desert land, in a howling wilderness waste; he shielded him, cared for him, guarded him as the apple of his eye” (Deuteronomy 32:10).
Jesus’ journey into the wilderness echoes Israel’s formative years of wilderness wanderings, as well as the experiences of two great leaders, Moses and Elijah. Moses received the commandments in the wilderness of Sinai. “He was there with the Lord 40 days and 40 nights; he neither ate bread nor drank water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the 10 commandments” (Exodus 34:28). Elijah was fleeing from Jezebel, and in the wilderness an angel of the Lord waited on him. “He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food 40 days and 40 nights to Horeb the mount of God” (1 Kings 19:8).
The wilderness is a place where life is pushed to the limits, a place of testing and struggle, but also a place of encounter with God, a place of promise and call.
In Lent we follow Jesus into the wilderness. We put a little distance between ourselves and the constant demands of our day-to-day world. The distance allows our relationship with God to emerge in sharper outline. With silence, fewer distractions, and less attention to what we will eat, drink or wear, Lent is an invitation to walk away a bit and discover anew God’s presence and providence—God’s promise and call for us.
Many think of Lent as a time “to give up” things, caffeine, chocolate, Facebook, alcohol, meat, you name it. A specific fast like that can help us live a little closer to essentials or allow us to practice a lifestyle we believe would be more faithful and life giving. Or, moments of craving can become moments of spiritual desire that lead us to prayer. In the end, though, wilderness time is not about giving up, but about noticing the layers we put between ourselves and who God wants us to be. It’s about noticing them and seeking to have them pulled away.
John Chrysostom, one of the great teachers of the church who lived in the 4th century C.E., spoke of the wilderness as “the mother of quiet; it is a calm and a harbor, delivering us from all turmoil.” In Lent we follow Jesus into the wilderness to see more clearly who he is and who we are to be.