“Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.”
After an encounter with the shadowlands of Ash Wednesday two days ago, we now sit silently in front of an opened curtain revealing the five-week theater that is the Valley of Lent. As is so often the case, the Gospel narrative for the first Sunday of Lent is that of the desert temptation.
Each of the synoptic Gospels signals the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry against the backdrop of an unnamed Middle Eastern desert. In biblical parlance, the desert is that place in Scripture where we go to figure out who is who and what is real. It is the place where souls are revealed.
Imagine Jesus after a long fast and a lonely walk in the desert. He sees a barren landscape, a wasteland-no gardens, or streams, no milk or honey, only rocks and sand and the occasional desert fox. The scenery matches his interior. The land is as empty as his stomach.
The introduction to the Lenten season that we received on Ash Wednesday culminated with the exhortations and questions that today, in the desert, animate our journey forward:
“Join me now in the wilderness. Taste now only dust. Learn with me what only hunger can teach. Pay attention to the empty regions you have busied yourself to ignore.” Can we accept this invitation, entrusting ourselves to the One who delivers it? Will we enter this long journey patiently and with openness?
After traveling forty long days and nights without food, Jesus rests. Exhausted and hungry, he meets the devil and so do we, for this is not Jesus’ story alone; It is our story, too. Jesus carries the fullness of humanity into this divine appointment with the Devil. We are thus invited to a pilgrimage down, into and through the dark night of the soul. It is an invitation to wander in the wilderness, to come face to face with the blurred contours of our own battered souls as we journey with Jesus to the cross.
I am reminded of a quote touching on a crucial element of pilgrimage that fueled the beginning of Lent several years ago for our Street Psalms community.
“The truth is that when someone sets out on the road it’s never in the name of an abstract idea. Ultimately, there’s only one path; to take another is merely to wander. But the voyager is the only one who knows it. Set out from where you are; otherwise, you’ll never arrive anywhere.”
Jean Sulivan – Morning Light
The last line speaks loudly to my soul this year. I am fighting the temptation to embark on the Lenten journey this year from a false place in search of a space that is not mine to occupy. Jesus’ path into the desert and his encounter with the Devil shows the way forward. We are compelled to begin the journey to the cross from where we actually reside…not from where we prefer to be. This, indeed, is invitation into grace-filled adventure.
Lest we be overwhelmed by images of Jesus’ desert temptation beckoning us forward into solidarity with his hunger and loneliness, it would do us well to remember what immediately precipitated the Spirit’s leading him into the wilderness. Jesus entered the desert “full of the Holy Spirit,” according to Luke’s account. The “filling” occurred because he had just received the commissioning words of his baptism, “And a voice from heaven said, This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17).
Thus, commissioned in love, we journey forward with Jesus, from the place “right where we are,” fueled by what Mary Jo Leddy calls “radical gratitude.” This is what fills the heart of Jesus while wandering in the wilderness; from that space we experience our own invitation for the journey with him to the cross, where all of life is re-imagined once and for all.
Joel Van Dyke
Director, Urban Training Collaborative
Guatemala City, Guatemala
P.S. The desert temptation centers around the symbols of bread, temple, and crown. For a detailed look at these symbols and their significance for the Lenten journey, read an excerpt from Geography of Grace HERE from which this Word from Below reflection was partly adapted.