Meditating on Jesus’ 40 days in the desert can enrich Lent

By Joyce Duriga | Editor
Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Pope Francis places ashes on the head of Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, head of the Apostolic Penitentiary, during Ash Wednesday Mass at the Basilica of Santa Sabina in Rome Feb. 14, 2024. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

Lent is a time of preparation for the commemoration of Jesus’ death and Resurrection and his ultimate second coming. To unpack this season, editor Joyce Duriga spoke with Kevin Pease, director of the Scripture School at the Institute for Pastoral Studies at Loyola University Chicago.

In Advent, Pease launched “In the Name of Jesus,” a yearlong online course for laypeople that digs deeper into the Sunday readings to help students grow in their understanding of the Eucharist and their relationship to Jesus. (To enroll, visit:

Chicago Catholic: What is the role of Lent in the liturgical year?

Kevin Pease: Every time Lent comes around, I am humbled by its meaning. I do think that Lent and Advent are very similar, even if they are different in many ways. At their heart, they are liturgical seasons of preparation for the coming of the Lord in a special, more intentional way.

Advent and Lent anticipate Jesus’ second and final coming when the kingdom of God will indeed be, as we pray in the Our Father, on earth as it is in heaven. I would venture to say that there is a degree greater of spiritual intensity in Lent because it culminates with the celebration of the holy Triduum. Those days, out of the whole year, are most holy because they reveal for us why Jesus was born in the first place, why he came as human in the first place, to reveal to us the saving passion of God as he walks his way to the cross on Good Friday.

We’re really called to walk that way of the cross in preparation with him and for him during these 40 days of Lent. That is quite a bit of intensity that we are called to reflect on all year round, of course, but thank God for this season in particular, where that can happen in a very special, intentional and concerted way in prayer individually and with the whole church as well.

Chicago Catholic: What biblical image can inspire people during Lent?

Pease: The image that I find to be most helpful when thinking about Lent and getting ready for Lent is the desert. The 40 days of Lent for us mirror Jesus’ 40 days in the desert. Now, 40, in general, is a very special number biblically. We have Jesus’ 40 days in the desert, of course. That is intentional by the evangelists to reflect the ancient Israelite experience of 40 years wandering the wilderness with Moses as they experienced the fruits and the challenges of their exodus from Egypt.

Jesus goes into the desert immediately after his baptism. In Mark’s Gospel, it’s very poignant. The text reads that Jesus is driven — in other translations the word is “compelled” — to go into the desert, where he prays and he fasts and truly gives alms in the generosity of his prayer and his presence to the Father. Very much so does he embody these three spiritual practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving that we’re called to during Lent. He receives the Holy Spirit into his very being anew at his baptism, the love of his Father anew into his being, and that love is what drives him into the desert where he himself is preparing for his public ministry and his mission to come. In a way, Jesus himself goes into the desert basically to do Lent and to do Lent perfectly. That requires him to be very focused in prayerful ways while the Holy Spirit is just supercharging within him — of course he always had and has the Holy Spirit, but in this way, it’s this special time for him to be present and really think about what is to come next. He practices that through prayer and fasting. We are told that Jesus is hungry, and we can really feel the pain of that with him. We all know what it is like to experience hunger and desire food, but Jesus is hungry for more than that, as are we. We’re hungry to be fed spiritually and want this communion with the Father, with Jesus, with the Holy Spirit so much so that, as the psalms say, our souls long for God in our lives.

Sometimes during Lent we give up something as a little sacrifice in order to be more present to our fasting and our prayer, but other times we take on something that might help focus our intentions spiritually, whether that be attending Mass more regularly or perhaps going to eucharistic adoration more regularly, picking up a book for spiritual reading in order to help focus on our relationship with God.

Jesus does that in the desert and experiences trials. The only biblical account of an explicit encounter with Satan is during this time. And that is very powerful. We understand Jesus to, of course, be sinless — not without sin in every way. So Jesus is like us in all things but sin. But we also honor the biblical truth that he was tempted, that he experienced temptation the way that we do.

The difference between Jesus and us is that our original sin makes it so that we often fall into temptation. Jesus, while tempted by the false promises of Satan, he never falls for temptation. He recognizes that the false promises of Satan are empty and in those moments, he clings all the more so to the Holy Spirit and remembers who and whose he truly is in a way that defeats temptation and allows him to be convicted about what he’s about to walk as the way of the cross all for the sake of the Gospel’s saving love.

Chicago Catholic: So meditating on Jesus’ time in the desert can enrich our Lent?

Pease: Understanding a preparation of waiting and having sort of a desert imagery — basically allowing ourselves to be OK with discomfort, with being alone at some point in the desert with just God the way that Jesus was alone with just God. Allow ourselves to maybe give up something, maybe take on something, but no matter how we choose to sacrifice to let it be uncomfortable and to sit with those emotions that come up for us will tell us a lot about what is going on inside of us spiritually and about how we can grow deeper in relationship with God.

All of that comes out of the desert. Like the most beautiful flowers, in my experience, come from the desert. And you’re like, “How? How is that possible? There’s no water. It’s generally cold at night. How do they survive?” Yet some of the deepest beauty of God’s creation is found in the wasteland and in the isolation of the desert and that totally exemplifies the way of the cross. It is the most ugly thing that humanity has ever seen, the crucifixion. And the most beautiful thing comes out of it, Jesus’ Resurrection. That all is preparatory work for him and for us in spiritual desert of our hearts.

He is God, and as a human being like us, he has a relationship with God the Father. I think it’s OK for Lent to feel challenging. It’s OK for Lent to feel even a little lonely. I think taking a step back perhaps from daily routine and some of those things that make for daily routine and changing things up a bit where we are more intentionally quiet, more intentionally reserved for our relationship with God is not a bad thing.

I know it’s an uncomfortable experience. It certainly is for me to basically invite intentional loneliness, but it does allow for closeness for Jesus.

Whenever I read that passage about Jesus in the desert, being alone for 40 days, I imagine he probably experienced deep loneliness looking ahead to what he was called to do in his mission. But in that loneliness, he found that comfort and that communion with his Father and the Holy Spirit that he had just been baptized with, that love that compelled him to walk the way of the cross. That’s a gift.

If we create enough opportunity during Lent for silence around us and imagine being in the desert, looking up at the stars, maybe over a makeshift fire, simply being in prayer with God, not necessarily in conversation with anyone else but God, there’s some real rich activity prayerfully that can happen in our hearts during this season.


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