Forty days and forty nights you were fasting in the wild …— George Hunt Smyttan (1856)
These are the first lines of the Lenten hymn, Forty Days and Forty Nights. We sing these words early in the season, often on the first Sunday of Lent as we prepare to hear an account of Jesus going into the wilderness following his baptism. The hymn promises, in typical Catholic fashion, that if we faithfully commit to suffering in the wilderness with Jesus, we may appear with him at the “eternal Eastertide.”
We often sing another hymn, The Glory of these Forty Days, that alludes to the numerous instances of biblical folk entering the wilderness: Moses, Elijah, Daniel, John the Baptist, and of course, Jesus.
For centuries, Jesus’ trek into the wilderness has set the tone for Christians’ Lenten observances. Some might dismiss this idea as those silly Catholics being all into their suffering and guilt. While a lot of Catholic practice seems to glorify suffering, this is much more.
The wilderness is not a hospitable, comfortable place where we can feel safe and validated. It’s a dangerous place full of uncertainty, sharp edges, and hazards that will trip us up if we’re not aware. Why would anyone in their right mind want to go there?! If you read between the lines of the biblical narratives, those illustrious folks apparently didn’t go willingly: Moses and Elijah were driven into the wild by angry political leaders, Daniel was thrown into a den of lions for not bowing down in worship to a conquering king. We don’t really know much about why John the Baptist went into the wilderness; we just know he walked out of the wilderness afire with a message of a coming redeemer. The Gospel accounts tell us Jesus was driven by the spirit out into the wild.
The wilderness is daunting, and most of us probably wouldn’t even think of going there without a little, ahem, encouragement. It’s a place of deprivation and hardship that most of us try to avoid at all costs. We have enough writings from the saints to know that the experience is not a pleasant one, although a large part of the spirituality of the early Irish Christian was shaped by the lives of those we call the Desert Fathers (and Mothers). More about that in a later reflection.
For now, let’s take a long, hard look at the wilderness places God might be driving us to explore. Let’s try to enter the wilderness of Lent expecting that, though it will be challenging and sometimes feel impossible, we will come through on the other side with renewed spirits eager to share in the joys of Easter.
Blessings on your Lenten journeys.