Today in the ancient Church was the usual beginning of the Lenten season, and this is shown for us even in this new liturgy by the use of the Gospel account of Christ’s 40 days in the desert and His subsequent temptation by Satan before entering into His public ministry. It marks our own entry into the 40 days of preparation before the Easter festivities, from which the Latin name for Lent comes (Quadragesima - Latin for 40). While we are still encouraged to celebrate Sunday as the day of the Resurrection, we are today called to a quieter celebration, because the Church desires us to recall today and throughout these accompanying days the reason for the season. We receive hints of this reason in the texts of that we have heard this day.
Why is it that Jesus goes out into the desert for 40 days, fasting and praying the whole time? The first hint is found in the number of days, which should recall to our minds the 40 years of journeying in the desert by the Israelites during the Exodus. The number 40 is associated throughout the Scriptures with periods of testing or judgment or purification. Each use is ultimately tied to that chronological number for the Exodus, that period when God tested and purified ancient Israel before they received the reward of the Promised Land. What we see, then, in Christ’s 40 days in the desert is an image or reflection of the 40 years of the Exodus.
Our Lord also goes into the desert so as to begin His great work of salvation. Most of the Gospel accounts tell how, after His baptism by John in the Jordan, He is lead by the Spirit into the desert. After the revelation of Jesus as the Christ, the Anointed One, in His Baptism, He seems to hide away from the public life in the worst of all places. The desert is a vast wasteland, seemingly empty of life or the ability to maintain life. Why must Christ begin in the desert? Christ begins in the desert because of what humanity did in the Garden.
Think back to the very beginning of the Scriptures, of the story of our salvation. At their creation, our first parents were placed in a rich garden teeming with life all about it. Water flows freely, the plants seem to cover every square inch, the animals roam about at ease. Everything is beautiful and flourishing, until Adam and Eve partake in the first sin. With their disobedience, God exiles humanity from the flourishing garden so as to work the earth for their daily bread, from which man must toil and labor excessively for the little that he needs to survive.
The desert, then, that Jesus enters is a symbol of the state of humanity at this point. We had been fruitful and plentiful in the garden, but with our fall from grace, we had become barren by sin. This is what sin does to each one of us. It strips us of our original holiness and points us towards death. It makes us fruitless and barren in our spiritual life, leaving us in a state where faith does not flourish, where hope has no haven, and where love is lost for all.
It is our sinfulness which leaves us barren and without any life, but God does not leave us in this state. The journey of Jesus through the desert is meant to mark the beginning of the revitalization of humanity, of restoring us to our original, fruitful, and vivifying state with God. It is to fulfill what is promised by the prophet Isaiah: “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the lily it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing.” (35:1-2) The desert of sinful humanity shall be transformed by the humanity of the God-man who comes to undo sin with His obedience and His holiness.
But a desert can only flourish if there is water. From where shall come the water that shall revitalize our spiritual deserts? This spiritual water is the grace of God won for us through the merits of Christ’s Passion and Death, that water and blood which pours forth from the pierced side of our Savior. It is only by His grace that we are able to begin to bear fruit in our lives and be transformed from spiritual deserts to spiritual gardens. That grace was first given to us at our baptism, when we died with Christ and rose again with Him to new life. But, just as a garden must be maintained with water or else it will die, so too must our spiritual life be maintained by our continual contact with Christ, or else we shall run the risk of returning to that state of barrenness and death in which we were conceived.
If we are to maintain our spiritual fecundity, we must remain close to Christ through His sacraments and through our daily life. Lent in particular is the means whereby we refocus our lives towards the Lord of all who enriches all who call upon Him, as Saint Paul tells us in our second reading. If we indeed believe the message of the Gospel - the proclamation of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection - if we believe this not as a logical reasoning but as the article of faith that it is, then indeed we will be saved from sin and death. If we do not, then we separate ourselves from the only one who can give us life and joy now and for all eternity, and we make ourselves the property of the devil, as he makes claim in our Gospel today.
Let us not delay in admitting our weakness and our failure to live up to the Gospel up to now. Let us realize more quickly than ever before our complete need for God’s grace and mercy to help us be what we were meant to be. Let us cry out to the Lord to be with us in our time of trouble, so that we may, by His help, overcome our own temptations just as He did the same in the desert. Let us not remain barren deserts void of growth and vitality, but let us be renewed this Lent by the sacraments, especially the sacrament of Confession, so as to become fruitful and alive. Let us pray, fast, and give, so as to reflect our spiritual fecundity in our own lives. May we be nourished by the water of God’s grace so as to be fruitful and alive both now, and for the life to come.