Lent in the Desert

Note: Robert Royal will be joining Fr. Gerald Murray and Raymond Arroyo – the Papal Posse – on EWTN’s The World Over at 8 PM ET Thursday to discuss recent developments in Rome and America. Consult your local listing for times and rebroadcasts. Shows are also available shortly after broadcast via the EWTN YouTube channel.

As I sat in the frigid cold and darkness of Houston without power and water last week, I had two thoughts. The first was how, in our age of abstraction from reality, people feel fully qualified to talk about “green energy” while having no idea how a complex electrical power grid works. But my second thought was this:  “Well, this is an interesting way to start Lent.”

Reading my friend Chris Dorn’s wonderful little book Following Jesus on the Way: Biblical Meditations on Lenten Themes in the dark and cold, by candlelight, reminded me that the season of Lent has often been compared to the desert, both the desert the Jewish people wandered in for forty years before they could enter the Promised Land and the desert where Jesus went for forty days of prayer and fasting.

As Reverend Dorn rightly notes, the desert is a place of both purification and temptation.  Indeed, it is unlikely that one can achieve the purification without the temptation, if only the temptation to forego the purification

The desert also has its demons. I never have a stronger desire for meat than during Fridays in Lent.  And I am never hungrier than between those small meals on Ash Wednesday. Christ overcame His temptations in the desert, choosing the way of the Cross over the temptations of wealth, power, and pleasure, and so must we.

“The signs of the times” suggest that Christians may be “in the desert” for a long while. How long?  God only knows.  But we know it’s never easy to leave behind “the fleshpots of Egypt.”  And yet one cannot be truly free any other way.

The question Lent forces us to face is this:  Are we ready?  Are we ready for forty years in the desert?  Sixty years in Babylonian Exile?  Are we ready to embrace the way of the Cross?

Many Catholics seem to assume they can be devoted Catholics and still keep all the wealth and cultural status others in America enjoy.  But can we. . .really?  Lent bids us to ask ourselves what we would be willing to sacrifice to live the call of the Gospel.  A good job?  A house in a good neighborhood?  The car and clothes that fit the class with which I would like to associate myself?  My status among my neighbors?

Catholics are asked to “give up” things during Lent – some meat, perhaps sweets or extra cream in your coffee. These are good personal observances.  But we have public obligations as well.  “Giving alms” is one expression of that obligation, but there are others.


Listen to the voice of the prophet Isaiah:

Like a nation that has done what is just
    and not abandoned the law of their God;
They ask me to declare what is due them,
    pleased to gain access to God.
“Why do we fast, and you do not see it?
    afflict ourselves, and you take no note of it?”

That is Israel’s complaint.  Is it ours?  Here is the Lord’s reply.

Lo, on your fast day you carry out your own pursuits,
    and drive all your laborers.
Yes, your fast ends in quarreling and fighting,
    striking with wicked claw.
Would that today you might fast
    so as to make your voice heard on high!
Is this the manner of fasting I wish,
    of keeping a day of penance:
That a man bow his head like a reed
    and lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Do you call this a fast,
    a day acceptable to the LORD?
This, rather, is the fasting that I wish:
    releasing those bound unjustly,
    untying the thongs of the yoke;
Setting free the oppressed,
    breaking every yoke;
Sharing your bread with the hungry,
    sheltering the oppressed and the homeless;
Clothing the naked when you see them,
    and not turning your back on your own.
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
    and your wound shall quickly be healed.

So what are we willing to give up this Lent?  What alms are we prepared to give?

Are we ready to give up our atomized individualism that keeps us from thinking that we owe anyone else anything other than basic civility?

Are we ready to give up the “freedom from all constraint” that permits us to do whatever we want, regardless of the needs of others, free from obligations to others?

Are we ready to give up our hyper-critical partisanship?  Our anger and bitterness at everyone who doesn’t see things the way we do or make the same judgments we have made?

Are we ready to give up the pleasures of self-righteous indignation at the faults of others and to attend more to the plank in our own eye rather than the speck in the other guy’s?

Are we willing to give up working primarily for ourselves and for our own goals, and work instead with and for others, attending to their needs, hopes, and desires as much as our own?

Are we willing to give up the many ingenious rationalizations we make for ourselves that allow us to violate whatever moral norms we have decided we don’t like while holding in force those that bind others?

What artifices of the self are we willing to give it up to embrace the virtues of charity and the selfless gift of ourselves to others?

I ask because we’re likely headed into the desert for a long dry spell.  How long, I don’t know.  But already there is plenty of grumbling.  Too much of it comes from me.  So it would probably be worthwhile for all of us to keep in mind as we enter upon our journey into that wilderness that there is no other way than the way of the Cross. And the freedom of the Promised Land is not for those still pining for the fleshpots of Egypt, nor are the gifts of the Kingdom of God for those who relish the special feeling of empowerment that comes with being self-righteously indignant.


*Image: The Prophet Isaiah and King David by Camillo Boccaccino, 1530 [Musei Civici di Palazzo Farnese, Piacenza, Italy] The image is actually two “organ shutter” panels, originally from the church of Santa Maria di Campagna in Piacenza. Isaiah is on the left. Latin epigraphs explain why the king, who lived several centuries before the prophet, and Isaiah are depicted together: Christ will come from the Davidic line.

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.