The desert seems to play a significant role in the Bible and early Christianity. Does it have any meaning for us?
The desert definitely infringes upon the land and life of the Jews. A small land by any standards, it is surrounded on the east and south by desert, as well as some areas within the country which are considered desert.
Not all these deserts are sand and rock, as after the rains, grass grows so flocks can be pastured. The desert to the south is described as "great and terrible" (Deuteronomy 8.15) but the desert to the east is rarely mentioned in the Old Testament.
The influence of the desert in the Bible is clear because of a strong awareness of Israel's desert background.
The desert is a constant reminder of danger, hardship and even death. It is where fugitives and bandits hide; it is the home of wild animals and the devil. Although entering or traversing it is sometimes necessary, it is dangerous.
The desert also plays a symbolic role. To deprive the land of rain and growth is to turn it into its original chaos and uselessness. This is what the sins of Israel deserve (Ezekiel 6.14). Instead God's goodness wanted to give them the Promised Land, but they needed to be prepared through suffering.
The 40-year desert journey was difficult. But God's plan was to guide, not abandon, them. In this inhospitable place, the Israelites were made God's people and received the Law and the Covenant.
In the desert, they experienced an intimacy with God which continued to be remembered and longed for during many difficult years. It has continued to be celebrated and is especially commemorated in the Seder meal at Passover.
The desert is a vital factor in the New Testament and in the early Church. John the Baptist, in line with his people and prophets, is presented to us from desert life where repentance and conversion can take place. He points to the Messiah and baptizes Jesus.
Jesus, symbolically, relived the formative aspects of his people by fasting 40 days in the desert before his public life. The Scripture that quotes the devil's temptations promised a comfortable and powerful life, but Jesus rejected those temptations.
Early Christians fled to the desert away from the sinfulness of affluent cities. They lived austere, solitary lives, fasting and praying. Paul, after his Baptism moved to Arabia, where he may have spent part or all of his three years in the desert, fasting and praying. Then, he was ready to begin his mission.
Why the desert? In the desert, we stand alone before God. We empty ourselves of obstacles to God. We reflect on our faith in God and examine our values. We are forced to live with the ambiguities and inconsistencies of our lives.
In the emptiness of the desert, God's power and goodness becomes overwhelming. Thus, we become strengthened and ready to serve God and neighbour as Jesus was after his desert time.
Today, we can enter the desert by taking a new look at Jesus in the Gospels. During his public life, Jesus busily tended to the needs of the poor, the sick, the powerless. However, Jesus went by himself to pray and often raised his eyes to heaven and touched base with the Father.
During the 40 days of Lent, the Church provides an opportunity for desert experiences. The Scripture readings of Lent can become crucial in providing us with insight into what Jesus asks of us.
Before God, we examine how we integrate the faith we profess with the faith we proclaim by our lives. We take time to look at God "face to face" and ask ourselves if God is our focus in life or is it worldly success?
In Matthew's Gospel (6.24-34), Jesus provided a blueprint for our lives. After comparing our anxious lives with those of the carefree birds and the beauty of the lilies' garments, Jesus said: "Strive first for the kingdom of God and righteousness and all these things will be given to you" (v. 33).
Where do we find God? God is with the poor, the hungry, the needy. God is there where we ourselves are weak, needy and dependent. This Lent, find God in the needy around you and within yourself. Ask God to lead you through the desert of your life.
But, you say, you are busy tending to many responsibilities. Is there, however, anything in this busyness stopping you from touching base with God?
Just being aware of God's presence within you is prayer. Paul says that since we are "God's temple and God's Spirit dwells within us" (2 Corinthians 3.16-17), "when we do not know to pray, the spirit prays within us" (Romans 8.26).
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