Friday, February 15, 2013

At the end of the Lenten desert

First Sunday of Lent Year C

This week we follow Jesus into the desert, that harsh arid environ, that barren landscape both fascinating and terrifying, and for many of us, the last place on earth we would want to end up in. It lacks the necessary vegetation and foliage that would provide shade from the accursed sun. It lacks water necessary for life. The desert is literally deserted, a place not meant for the living, just for the dead. It is there that the power of death holds sway. And yet, the desert is the perfect place to spend Lent. In the Gospels, Jesus is tempted in the wilderness to be a different kind of Messiah; to take the path of spectacle and power rather than that of humble service. 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. Perhaps, our desert experience began much earlier this year, with the announcement of Pope Benedict XIV that he is resigning, just two days prior to the start of Lent on Ash Wednesday.

Both the desert and the Pope’s decision and announcement have left us confused. How could both be good for the Church? Why should our contemplation of the ultimate hope our redemption at Easter be preceded by six weeks in a place without hope? How could such an experience kindle faith? How can the resignation of our supreme spiritual leader excite or even enthuse our faith? In fact, it seems to have the opposite effect. Well, 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 – symbolised 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)

Jesus left the opulence and religiosity of Jerusalem and the Jewish community in Galilee to embark on a Lent of his own. He suffered the rugged harshness of the wilderness for forty days and forty nights. He gave up the comforts of societal life and walked among the rocks. Pope Benedict, through his abdication, seems to be following the same path. His is a decision that should not be interpreted as running away from the desert. On the contrary, his abdication is accompanying Jesus into the desert. When Jesus entered the desert, he left behind all the expectations of others, all the illusions. It was just Jesus and the Father, in the Holy Spirit. In an analogous way, the Pope would soon be retiring to a monastery within the confines of the Vatican to be with God in prayer and solitude. But in solitude, demons come. No role is more dangerous than the reformer. The Pope was constantly pressured by society, the media and even those within the Church to bend the message of the gospel to the dictates of man, to soften its edge, and to shape it according to the rules of political correctness. But he has remain faithful to the task entrusted to him, and now he pays the price, albeit willingly.

We are people of illusions. We surround ourselves with the illusions of wealth, power and popularity, believing that these will save us. We think we understand God, we think we know ourselves and those around us. We plan our lives and are shocked when these plans fall through. We impose our wills on God or even say we know His plans. One thing is sure, however: despite its rigours, the desert will reveal to us, if we allow it, how totally God loves us, how utterly favoured, "beloved", we are by God, even as Jesus was God’s “beloved”. At the end of the desert journey there awaits the joy of renewed life, hope, and resurrection. The news of the Pope’s abdication was a painful shock to me because I had been living with the illusion that this 85 year old man would continue to steer the barque of St Peter for many more years to come. But the Pope’s announcement, the harsh reality of the ‘desert’, has exposed this illusion for what it is. Man can never claim to hold the fort for eternity, it is ultimately the task of God; only He alone can accomplish and complete what he has begun. In the desert, Jesus had no illusions of his own to face and destroy: he was tested for our sake, so we would know who he was not. He did not come to bribe us with earthly bread, or astonish us with feats of invulnerability. He did not seek world domination. He simply did the will of the Father. And that is all that is expected of us as it is expected of the Pope.

The desert, with its great emptiness and silence, has long been a symbol of solitude and also of loneliness, especially for those who do understand its hospitality. That is why the Devil came to tempt Jesus at the point where he was weakest, when he was hungry, thirsty, tired but most crucially, alone. The Devil knew about the loneliness of the desert and what hunger and deprivation does to us. But the eyes of faith can transform the desert from a hell hole of loneliness into a paradise of solitude. In our spiritual lives, we sometimes seek such isolation as a means of abandoning ourselves completely to God. At other times, solitude comes upon us uninvited and unwelcome, as we find ourselves totally alone and desolate. Many Catholics would understand the truth of this in the aftermath of the Pope’s decision and announcement. But the Pope’s departure does not mean that he has abandoned us, rather he has entrusted us to the care of One who can do exceedingly better.  God is with us.

The desert is the place of essentials, of the bottom-line. It’s the place where you and I are vulnerable to all our hidden demons and temptations. God bids us to withdraw to this place of spiritual inconvenience, in fact, God woos us to it. It’s the place of the unexpected. God doesn’t tip us off in advance as to what the Lenten desert has in store for us, and perhaps there will be more surprises in store for us apart from the news of the abdication of our Pope. In facing the silence and the vast expanses of loneliness, we test our courage, deepen our faith, and hear the voice of God anew. Here we discover our smallness and dependence. Here is where God can reach us in the silence where we are not assaulted by the cacophony of sounds and demands of modern life. In the desert, we will find the necessary sustenance for our journey of faith: fasting, almsgiving and prayer. In a very small way, they model the rejection of illusions about what we need, who we are, and who God is. By fasting, we are reminded that we are hungry for God. By almsgiving, we are reminded that Christ’s body, the Church, is hungry for God. By praying, we are reminded that we are hungry for eternal life with God. These Lenten practices put us in touch with our existential poverty and our journey in the desert reminds us to turn to God, not the world, if we wish to experience the fullness of life.

This Lent, the Church invites us to enter into the desert as we place our trust in God’s love, aware of God’s deep desire to satisfy our longing hearts and souls. The desert can certainly be difficult: It is never easy to stand alone in the presence of an all-knowing, all-powerful God. And perhaps the experience is so much more heightened this year as Lent would also be the period of the interregnum (the period marking the vacancy of the Papacy between the reigns of two Popes). But Christ reminds us that we are also in the presence of an all-loving God who wants nothing more than to fill us with his undying love. We enter the desert of Lent to become poor so that God can make us rich in his love and grace.  When Jesus had finally driven off the devil, angels came to wait on him. When, through Jesus, we have rejected illusion and self-deception, we can be sure of continued graces from God. At the end of the Lenten desert, we will have a visible sign of God’s love, a symbol of Christ’s Paschal victory over death and sin. At the end of the Lenten desert, we will have a new Pope!

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