Why would anyone go out to the desert? I suppose it sounds pretty good as the thermometer drops down beyond the single digits we have been enjoying, and goes into the minuses; and the wind blows snow and stinging salt into your face. My sister has lived in Tucson for some years and assures me that it is much warmer there. But that is not the kind of desert to which Jesus goes this week.
The First Sunday in Lent always brings the Gospel describing Jesus’ spending forty days in the desert fasting and praying. The three evangelists differ in what details they choose to include; this year, Mark mentions the Spirit driving Jesus out, and Satan tempting Him there, but nothing more about what the temptations were. It is clear that Jesus is not at some Arizona spa getting away from the winter weather.
This obviously has something to do with our own practice of Lent, but what is it? It seems like a historical precedent, and so it is. Everything that Jesus did is an example to us. The period of forty days, the prayer and fasting, all these elements of our Lent have a basis in the life of Jesus.
Jesus went out into the desert alone, and so it can seem that solitude is the distinguishing characteristic of this time of penance. However, Jesus went out in the desert not so that he could get away from us, but so that he could be with us.
Solidarity, not solitude, is a powerful part of what we do in these days. When the Eternal Word took flesh of the Virgin and became man, He willingly joined us in our remote exile from the delightful intimacy with God for which we are created, and for which we yearn. That willingness to leave behind what He enjoyed is the basis of His saving mission. When He goes willingly into even more distant exile in the desert, He does more than simply show us what to do.
Jesus had no sins for which He needed to repent, no bad habits He needed to break, and no excesses He needed to curb. But even as He sets His face toward Jerusalem and Calvary, He invites us to go with Him, and go with Him all the way – even through the Resurrection and Ascension into heaven.
When we set out into the desert of Lent, willingly taking up penances, we are not trying to repair ourselves by imitating Jesus so much as we are joining Jesus in what He does for us. The Church calls us to penance, and the Church unites Christians around the word into one body, following one path. The Church is the Body of Christ, and the path is first into the desert, and then, eventually, to the Father.
We do what the Church does; and what the Church does, is what Christ does. What Jesus Christ does is more than repair our vices; He redeems all mankind. Our little Lenten actions unite us into Him and His saving action.
Christ Jesus sought out the solitude and suffering we all endure in order to be in solidarity with us. We join Him in that selfless act, to whatever degree our Lenten practice provides, to be in solidarity with Him. The Church, by setting the time and the discipline, unites us all into Him: we are the Body of Christ, fasting and praying. For us men and for our salvation is the reason He, and we, go into the desert.