First Reading: Genesis 2: 7-9, 3: 1-7
Responsorial Psalm 51: 3-4, 5-6, 12-13, 17
Second Reading: Romans 5: 12, 17-19 (or 5:12-19)
Gospel: Matthew 4: 1-11
Led by the Spirit into the Wilderness
In today’s Gospel, we read that Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness. Some translations use the word desert in place of wilderness. Both words offer a reminder of Israel’s wanderings in the desert/wilderness. Important to note is that references to wilderness (or desert) indicate a deeply spiritual space. Wildernesses invite spiritual transformation.
The context is also helpful here. Immediately preceding this passage, Jesus is baptized by John the Baptist and all present hear God proclaim, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (3:17). The Beloved One is then led by the Spirit into the wilderness. Jesus’ identity as Beloved is deepened in this space. It is part of his preparation for whatever would follow – as he preaches the good news of God’s love, heals, feeds the people, forms a community of disciples, and continues to grow in his relationship with his God.
In the desert, Jesus fasted for forty days and forty nights. The point of Jesus’ fasting was not about eating less but about giving more time and space to hear God in his depths. As we begin our Lenten season we might hear people talk about fasting from or giving up sweets, alcohol, some form of social media, etc. Yet that is not the point of Lenten fasting.
While I was teaching in San Antonio some years ago a student from Mexico observed that in the United States we talk a lot about fasting during Lent, while where he ministered in his country many people fasted every day – because they had no other choice. There was not enough food. The point of Lent is not about refraining from certain foods we enjoy or using social media, etc. The point of Lent is much more linked to the words we heard on Ash Wednesday from the prophet Joel calling us to return to God with our whole heart (2:12).
What does your heart long for this Lent? What are the distractions, temptations or hurts that hold you back from the depth of relationship you long for with your God? Perhaps it is frustration or even a sense of despair with the current political climate that demeans rather than engages in meaningful dialogue. Perhaps it is the frenetic pace of life that is not sustainable. Perhaps it is a conflict or wound that has not healed. It is actually all these spaces and more which God longs to enter in with love, healing, insight, and hope.
After these sustained days and weeks of prayer and fasting in the wilderness, Jesus, knowing who he was (and whose he was) could counter the seductive temptations to prove he was the Son of God with power, prestige, and possessions. He knew who he was, and that his identity was in God, and his fidelity was to God.
What sustained him after his temptations in the wilderness are the practices he continued throughout his life. How often we read throughout the Gospels that Jesus would go off to pray, whether early in the morning or late in the day. This is what sustained him when the days were long and the demands and needs great – his relationship with God.
These calls are also ours. During Lent (and beyond), we, too, are asked to let the Spirit lead us into the wilderness. We, too, are called to follow the “lead of the befriending Spirit” (Gaudium et spes, 3). We are invited to go to the wilderness to listen, hear and be transformed. We don’t need to be away for forty days but we can find spaces within these forty days to give God our longings and to listen, letting go of the distractions that impede our listening. The call to the wilderness is to the heart of our deepest spiritual desires, where God is longing and waiting to enter evermore. It is from this sacred space that we are gradually transformed.
It is from our identity as God’s beloved daughters and sons that we not only counter the seductions of power, prestige, and possessions but we also witness God’s love in service, inclusivity, and generosity. The temptations and challenges in our society and church are great; we can only respond together and with the depth and clarity that comes from the time in the wilderness.
God is longing for us.
We are longing.
Come, let us be led by the Spirit into the wilderness.
Easter Hope awaits.