Keeping a Good Lent means welcoming in the desert, finds Rebecca Swyer
‘Filled with the Holy Spirit, Jesus left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit through the wilderness.’ (Luke 4.1). Whereas Mark says Jesus was ‘driven by the Spirit’ into the wilderness (sometimes translated as ‘desert’), Luke says Jesus was ‘filled by the Holy Spirit’ and ‘led by the Spirit’ into the wilderness. He wasn’t alone or left to find his own way through and ‘angels ministered to him’ (Mark 1.13).
The desert in the Holy Land doesn’t have sweeping sand-dunes and the occasional oasis. Instead, it is rugged land with stony outcrops and ravines. Daytime is very hot and night-time cold, making it a difficult context for humans to survive in. Birds of prey soar across the sky and wild animals traverse the bare land looking for quarry. Perhaps the first temptation for Jesus was not to go into the desert at all, something we can relate to as we’ve spent considerable amounts of time in the wilderness during periods of lockdown and restrictions. Yet Lent is the time in which we too must spiritually enter the desert and face the reality of who we are and how God sees and loves us, in order that we can grow in our faith and discipleship.
Jesus is led to this inhospitable place by the Holy Spirit at the beginning of his ministry to really engage with his humanity, without distractions of other people or pleasurable things. Jesus’ temptations here were about how he dealt with his divinity alongside his humanity without succumbing to its power. Our temptations will have a different focus to his because we’re not fully God and fully man, but human temptations will always be grounded in basic things such as greed, pride, and anger.
Setting aside time for God
We can all commit to finding space this Lent to think, listen, and pray. It could be having a time of quiet at home, during a walk, or sitting in church in front of the Blessed Sacrament.
Whatever we decide will work for us in our lives and routines, it needs to be a conscious time when – like Jesus – we listen to God’s voice and go where the Spirit is leading us. This will help and encourage us to reflect on our own lives and to ask ourselves ‘who is God calling me to be?’ ‘What does he want me to do to serve him?’ ‘Where is the Holy Spirit leading me?’
Making a particular effort to read scripture, a spiritual book or using bible reading notes can help our reflection and draws on the wisdom of others. Lent courses (such as this year’s Ebbsfleet course) can also be a beneficial way of challenging and guiding our thoughts, preferably undertaken with others as a means of mutual support.
Facing stumbling blocks
Christianity doesn’t protect us from experiencing difficult things – times of pain, loneliness, doubt, depression, or despair. We all make mistakes and do things that separate us from God and those we love. We can’t avoid the desert or pretend it doesn’t exist. However, we don’t enter the desert on our own or just in our own strength. Like Jesus, we are filled with the Holy Spirit and led by the Spirit – even if we’re not always aware of that.
Just as Jesus had to go into the desert to explore and face the reality of what it meant for him to be fully human as well as fully God, so we must explore what it means for us to be fully human and fully loved by God. Through honest self-examination during Lent, we can discover that God is there even at our darkest hour, even when we sin and let ourselves and other people down. The Palestinian desert has lots of little caves in the rocky outcrops where people can shelter, and even in a spiritual desert there are places and ways of sheltering in God’s constant presence. Phrases of scripture (particularly the psalms) can echo in us: ‘The Lord is my shepherd, there is nothing I shall want’; ‘Lord, you have searched me out and know me’; ‘the darkness is no darkness with you, but the night is as clear as the day’; ‘nothing shall separate us from the love of God.’
Sacramental confession is a liberating and joyous gift to each of us, assuring us of God’s love – a daunting practice, but worth it! At the Easter Vigil we’ll then be ready to renew our baptismal promises, turning away from sin and the devil and towards Christ.
Going out of our comfort zone
This journey into the desert also means that each of us must go out of our comfort zones. It might lead us to face an aspect of our behaviour or lifestyle that we need to change. Many people give up chocolate or alcohol during Lent, but this must serve a purpose, or this can just distract us with endless daydreams about purple wrappers and green bottles (other brands are available!).
The Lenten journey might also lead us out of our comfort zone physically, perhaps to get involved with something in the wider community. We must be careful not to think of the Church as the only place where God dwells and condemn the wider world as something primarily negative or God-forsaken. Luke reminds us that God is present and can be encountered even in desolate and unexpected places.
The Revd Canon Rebecca Swyer is a distinctive deacon and Director for Apostolic Life in the Diocese of Chichester.