Every year, every Lent, the Church invites us to a unique place, for a unique time. It begins every year on the First Sunday of Lent when we walk with Jesus into the desert, there for a time of testing and self-discovery.
From that moment forward, the wilderness becomes the enduring image of the season. Of course, the usual experience is that we walk out of the wilderness into the verdant garden of Easter; that is our expectation and our desire, we spend our 40 days in the wilderness and we are rewarded with light, oil, flowers and joy.
Today, we are facing a new reality, one that mocks our expectations. We face a Lent that ends, not with the luxurious joy of Easter, but of more time dealing with the new reality of these days of self-distancing and anxiety.
We know this is the right thing to do, and we are living transformed lives for the good of others, and there is courage and grace found in this realization, but that does not entirely take away the sense of loss.
Thus is the wilderness still an amazing image for us.
At the Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper, the first reading is from Exodus and gives us the instructions the Lord gives to the people to prepare them for the passing over of the angel of death, and how to commemorate this perpetually.
At the Great Easter Vigil, the third reading completes the Passover story with the people of Israel walking through the Red Sea. On one side of the sea, they were a ragtag group of runaway slaves, but on the other side of the sea, they were a people, chosen by the Lord.
They make their way to Sinai as the Lord ratifies the chosenness given them through the waters of the sea.
It is all beautiful, but we sometimes forget what happened between the covenant on Sinai and the joy of entering into the land of promise. The people of God had to wander; they had to wander for 40 years.
This is something even Cecil B. DeMille skipped over in “The Ten Commandments.” It is a natural human tendency to want to jump from the Red Sea to the River Jordan, but those years mattered to this newborn people. It was their time to learn what it meant to be free, and to learn what really was going to matter in their lives.
The Scriptures do not present it as a particularly pleasant time, but a time of testing. There were long days of thirst, and long days of hunger, but they learned that the God who freed them could bring water from the rocks and bread from the heavens. There were long days of excruciating heat, blinding sun, endless wandering, but they learned that the Lord who freed them could guide them as well.
They learned that blind obedience is not freedom, but trust is; they learned to trust. There were deep lessons in the wilderness.
Our Lent will draw to a close, and we will celebrate a unique Easter, and instead of entering into the Promised Land of life as usual, we will spend more time in the wilderness. The difference is, we will make our way through the wilderness with a renewed sense of Easter meaning.
The people of Israel could have just mindlessly wandered for 40 years, but they had the courage to grow during this time because they let themselves be led to the spiritual depths the time in the wilderness offered. Each of us, baptized into that same covenant, are given that opportunity now.
Our time in the wilderness, living in this time of pandemic, is a struggle, painful, a time of absence and loneliness. But we are not alone, and we are invited to find and share the spiritual depths of this time.
Our time without the celebration of the Eucharist can renew in us the importance of this gift, and deepen our longing for it. Our time of social isolation can remind us how vital our relationships are. Our quiet walks outside to get some air and stretch our legs can reconnect us to the beauty that surrounds us daily. Our global experience of crisis can renew within us the truth that we really are one human family.
The simple reminder of our fragility can give us the courage to speak again our words of love and support to one another, because we need to speak them, and we need to hear them.
This is a struggle, and painful, and there will be dark days ahead, but, guided by the Lord, we learn and grow and soon the sun will rise beautifully over the Promised Land.