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Lent: Into the Desert

The desert is the world’s most barren and arid place. It lacks the two necessary sources for life to thrive: water and vegetation. It is sparsely populated and sparing of no one. It is a place void of hope and reminiscent of death. It is the perfect place to spend Lent.

Each year, in imitation of our Lord, we retreat into the desert for the forty days – the liturgical season consecrated for personal conversion and preparation to celebrate the great mysteries of our redemption. But why should our contemplation of the ultimate hope be preceded by six weeks in a place without hope? How can such a place kindle faith?

The answer lies in the other mystery that prompted the Incarnation and was overcome at Easter: sin. “The desert,” Pope Benedict has written, “the opposite image of the garden, becomes the place of reconciliation and healing.” Death – symbolized by the desert – is the consequence of sin, the result of choosing ourselves over God.

For reconciliation with God to take place, death had to be vanquished, sin had to be expiated. To accomplish this, God himself “became sin” – He entered the desert – “so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Cor 5:21)

Redeemed as we are by Christ’s sacrifice, we must still struggle to overcome the sin present in our lives. This life-long challenge takes on new impetus in Lent, when we apply the special weapon of fasting to “put off your old nature which belongs to your former manner of life…and put on the new nature, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” (Eph 4:22-23)

“Fasting,” as the Liturgical Movement’s grandfather Dom Prosper Guéranger teaches, “is an abstinence, which man voluntarily imposes upon himself as an expiation for sin.” Sin brings pain and death to body and soul, so it is only when the soul marshals the body’s strength against sin in the form of fasting that sin can be vanquished.

The ultimate expiation of sin caused the innocent Son of God to suffer the cruelest pain in body and soul on the cross. In imitation of Christ, our fasting is also to cause us pain in body and soul.

       The Temptation in the Wilderness by Briton Rivière, 1898

Herein lies the paradox of sin, and with it, the heart of our Lenten observance. Though we were created lovingly by God to enjoy the goods of the earth, these goods can consume us, and even become the object of sinful pride, as our first parents in the garden demonstrated. By temporarily renouncing these goods through fasting, we willingly suffer their absence in our flesh as a way to attack sin.

Fasting hurts us, but, like the pain brought about from physical exercise, it is supposed to hurt us. And like exercise, the more pain we endure for God, the more we gain in spiritual rewards.

The desert, then, is the place for Lent not only because it represents the pain and consequences of sin, but also because it is a place of abstinence from the fruits of the earth. When we spiritually withdraw to the desert, its emptiness reminds us that the goods of the earth ultimately cannot satisfy us. Our true fulfillment is God, who in the resurrection leads us out of the desert and into eternal paradise.

But challenging our Lenten observance is a world that has forsaken the spiritual desert for a false garden teeming with so many attractions that they have become distractions. The constant percolation of responsibilities, distractions, and electronic toys have helped push the practice of our faith to the margins of our lives: giving up chocolate or television become just another task in the midst of a busy day rather than a particular act that manifests a comprehensive Lenten disposition centered on God and conversion.

In former times civil society and the Church aided our observance of Lent by contributing to the spiritual desert: Constantine prohibited military exercises on Fridays, Theodosius suspended law-suits, King Edward the Confessor forbade the carrying of arms. Amusements and public entertainments ceased, as did hunting and sport. The Church required a strict fast for all forty days of Lent, and she forbade the celebration of Christian marriages.

These times are gone and not to return in the foreseeable future. The challenge now falls to us as believers and spiritual pilgrims to create our own spiritual deserts amidst all the distractions. We can imitate our Catholic forebears by making our Lent more than just giving up a food we love: we can make the desert in all its aridity the place from which we view our lives and actions. By fasting from foods and abstaining from entertainments every day of Lent, we join Christ in his Passion, painfully yet hopefully mindful that the only way to Easter Sunday is through Good Friday.

“The wages of sin is death,” (Rom 6:23) and death is the ultimate punishment. Only by allowing ourselves to experience death through fasting can we combat and atone for the sins we have committed. In a divine irony, the barrenness of the desert provides fertile ground for our repentance from sin and rebirth in the Resurrection. We can walk the path to reconciliation and healing only if we first pass through the tribulations of the desert.

David G. Bonagura Jr. an adjunct professor at St. Joseph’s Seminary and is the 2023-2024 Cardinal Newman Society Fellow for Eucharistic Education. He is the author of Steadfast in Faith: Catholicism and the Challenges of Secularism and Staying with the Catholic Church, and the translator of Jerome’s Tears: Letters to Friends in Mourning.