Father Donald Senior, CP

March 10: First Sunday of Lent

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Spend time in the desert

Dt 26:4-10; Ps 91:1-2, 10-11, 12-13, 14-15; Rom 10:8-13; Lk 4:1-13

As we begin Lent, the Sunday readings place us in the desert, a region of great meaning for the Bible. The desert referred to is the Sinai desert — the trackless wasteland that separates Egypt from Israel (both bordering on Gaza, a tortured patch of land much in the news these days).

In the opening reading from Deuteronomy, Moses recites what seems to be something of a set piece: “My father was a wandering Aramean who went down to Egypt with a small household and lived there as an alien.” What follows is a quick sketch of the remarkable origin of Israel, according to the Bible.

These “wandering Arameans” grow into a strong and numerous people and ultimately became the object of the native Egyptians’ maltreatment and even enslavement. But the Lord, “the God of our Fathers,” hears the cry of his people and, through the leadership of Moses, brought them out of Egypt and into a land “flowing with milk and honey.”

Right at the outset of Lent we are reminded that the God of Israel, the God of Jesus, is a liberating God. A God who hears the cries of those who are burdened and downtrodden and rescues them from slavery and leads them into freedom and abundant life. This movement from death to life is the deep pattern of the church’s Lenten season preparing for Easter.

But the way to the promised land is through the desert. The desert, with its demanding terrain, its unforgiving climate, its stark and vast landscape, reminds us that moving from death to life is not an automatic process. We know the history of Israel in the desert — tested, hesitant, going astray at times, lured by false gods in the guise of a golden calf, ready to give up the quest for freedom if only they could taste again the “garlics and leeks” of Egyptian cuisine. 

Despite the multiple failures of Israel in the desert, God does not abandon them. In fact, God makes an enduring covenant with the people at Sinai and, ultimately, as Moses recalls in the reading from Deuteronomy, brings them into their homeland.

All of this, of course, is a backdrop for the Gospel reading from Luke about the desert test of Jesus. After his baptism by John the Baptist where he is suffused with God’s Spirit and revealed as God’s beloved Son, Jesus is led by the Spirit into the desert to prepare for his mission

Where Israel had failed multiple times, Jesus remains faithful and spurns the attempts of Satan to draw him aside from his ministry. In Luke’s account, when Satan is foiled by Jesus, the Gospel notes, “(Satan) departed from him for a time.” As we will see throughout this coming year of readings from Luke, the power of evil is persistent and not to be ignored. 

Jesus, God’s Son, will encounter opposition and ultimately death itself, in carrying his mission of life.

We, too, as God’s people, begin this Lenten journey in the desert — a boundary to be crossed between slavery and freedom, between a life threatened and a life renewed.

Recently, I was in Egypt leading a group of friends from Catholic Theological Union. While there we visited a number of Coptic Christian monasteries and churches. For most of the Bible, Egypt is viewed as a place of oppression — a place from which God delivers Israel. But the Coptic Christians hold on to a different memory, that of the visit of the Holy Family under threat from Herod. They, too, cross the desert, but this time from Israel to Egypt, a place of refuge (as Egypt was for another Joseph and his family long ago). 

The desert in the Bible beckons as a place of transition, where we are invited to sink deeper into our lives, to take stock of how we are living and by what values, to savor again the gift of our lives and the gift of our loved ones who sustain us. This Lent, in whatever way we can, let us spend some time in the “desert,” on the way to the rest of our life.


  • scripture