Forty days and forty nights
thou wast fasting in the wild;
forty days and forty nights
tempted, and yet undefiled.
That Lenten hymn came to life for me about a year ago during our diocesan pilgrimage to Israel. Our bus was driving west from the Dead Sea, on a route that would take us to Beersheba (associated with the Patriarch Abraham) and then up to Jerusalem. As our bus climbed the hills that rise from the Dead Sea, I noticed how bleak the landscape is: dry, barren, lifeless, and frankly unattractive. No one in his right mind would live there. Suddenly, off to the right side of the bus, a line of camels and their Bedouin masters made their way up the hill, parallel to the road. It occurred to me that nothing much has changed in two millennia. People then, and now, eke out a living in the wilderness. Somehow, in that stark and waterless place, Jesus himself encountered the forces of darkness – and the Power to resist evil. It was here, or somewhere very nearby, that Jesus for forty days and forty nights was “tempted, and yet undefiled.”
As the Lenten season begins, Jesus invites us to join him in the wilderness. While we live far from the desert, we can create (so to speak) a desert in our hearts, a place to face down evil and seek the Power of transformation. The Ash Wednesday liturgy is wonderfully specific. “I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word” (BCP, p. 265). There’s a refreshing directness in the Prayer Book’s prescription for Lent. Carve out for yourself the time and the place – the desert – where you can gaze into your heart and ask the difficult questions that the Litany of Penitence poses (BCP, pp. 267-268). That litany, in fact, that be an outline for self-examination. Where, Lord, have I gone wrong? How have relationships soured? In what ways have I excluded you from my life, denied the Lordship of Jesus, gone my own way? Where do I need you to shine your painfully searching light?
The Lenten desert is also a place to pray. It’s quiet there. Can we find a place of quiet in our lives? It can be a few minutes in the morning, or at the end of the day, or when we’re walking. (Sometimes, to create quiet in the midst of noise and chaos, I put on earphones, connect them to my iPhone, and turn on a “white noise” app!) Lent wisely reminds us that our experience of prayer is enhanced in the disciplines of fasting and self-denial; when we say No to an appetite, it’s a reminder that we are utterly dependent upon God. Here’s a quote from the late Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, a beloved media figure in the 1950s and -60s: “The Church fasts; the world diets. Materially there is no difference, for a person can lose twenty pounds one way as well as the other. But the difference is in the intention.” Yes, we can certainly (and rightly) deny ourselves for the sake of physical health. Given the Law of Nature – “Where The Bishop Is, There Will Be Food” – this is a reality in my own life! But fasting takes things deeper. We step back from an appetite for a time in order to turn our attention to God.
Re-directing our attention includes, the Prayer Book reminds us, “reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.” Many of you are already doing so in a significant way through the Bible Challenge. Even if you are not, Lent opens a door. Perhaps you might read the Daily Office readings appointed during the Lenten season (BCP, pp. 951-977; we’re in Year Two). However large or small the chunks of scripture you read, you can’t lose. The Lord can touch your heart in long readings or short ones. Remember that in the desert, as Jesus wrestled with evil, he called upon scripture as he faced down temptation (Matthew 4:1-11). The Bible had been planted in his heart. May it be planted in ours!
For forty days and forty nights, Jesus fasted and prayed in the wilderness. The desert’s bleak landscape was transformed into a place of struggle – and triumph. May our time in the desert lead us more deeply into the heart of Jesus.
Yours in Christ,