Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Into the Desert

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Now and forever. Amen.

Okay, so here we go, my first (well, technically second) blog post.

I've named this post "Into the Desert," because the desert is a Lenten theme, and we're currently in the middle of our Lenten observance this year. So, what I'm going to do is share  why the image of the desert is traditionally associated with Lent, where that comes from Biblically, and how we can apply it within our own lives, both within and without Lent.

40 Days

The penitential season of Lent is a period of forty days. If you actually count it up on a Calendar (from Ash Wednesday--Feb 10, 2016--to Holy Saturday--March 26), it's actually forty six days. What gives? Well, the Church considers all Sundays, even Sundays in Lent, to be feast days, and Holy Days of Obligation. This means that your penitential observances during Lent are not supposed to be held during the Sundays. There are six Sundays in Lent, so if you remove these from the count, there are forty Lenten penitential days.

So why forty? What's the big idea?

Periods of forty, whether it be years or days, have special significance in the Biblical tradition, and are attached to various concepts and themes. The first period of forty we see in Scripture is during the time of the Great Deluge. God sends His rain down upon the earth for forty days and forty nights (see Genesis 7:4, 12, 17). Being tied to this significant even in Biblical history, the forty days carries with it implications of rebirth (baptism), the exercise of God's wrath, and death.

We see this theme of death tied to forty days again in Genesis 50:3, where we see Jacob is embalmed according to Egyptian custom, a process that took forty days. This embalming process, however, was normally reserved for Egyptian kings, and this was done for Jacob due to Joseph's preeminent status in Egypt. So, it's not just tied to death, but the death of a king.

The next time we see this reference to "forty" is when we are told the Israelites were fed on manna in the desert for forty years before reaching the border of Chanaan (Exodus 16:35, Deuteronomy 2:7, 29:5). This is another highly significant even in Biblical history. Symbolically speaking, the desert, or wasteland, is a place of death. But, in this place of death, we see God sustains His people until that time they are prepared to enter the Promised Land. But it was also a place of God's wrath, just as in Noah's time, and to test and prepare the people (see Numbers 32:13, Deuteronomy 8:2, Joshua 5:6).

So, we have a return to the symbolism of rebirth. The Israelites had been living in Egypt. Two things happened to them there. First, they began to take on the religious customs of the Egyptians, including the worship of idols (among a very great many other moral crimes). Second, they became oppressed (sometimes translated as slaves) to the Egyptian rulers. So, the Israelites passage through the desert represents a two-fold freedom: freedom from wicked practices, and freedom from slavery. This represents a rebirth of the peoples of Israel in a dual-manner, a physical rebirth and a spiritual one.

Remember when Moses went up onto the mountain to receive the Tablets of the Law? Remember when he had to do that twice because he broke the first tablets? How long do you suppose he was up there, each time? If you guessed forty days and forty nights, that's right (check out Exodus 24:18, 34:28, Deuteronomy 9:9-25, 10:10)! So, we now have a new association with this period of forty: prayer; communion with God. But that's not all! Moses fasted during this time as well. So, like the Israelites altogether, who were sustained by the grace of God through forty years (manna), so Moses is sustained by the grace of God for forty days.

For more Old Testament references to periods of forty, see Judges 3:11, 5:32, 8:28, 13:1, 1 Kings (1 Samuel) 4:18, 17:16, 2 Kings (2 Samuel) 5:4, 15:7, 3 Kings (1 Kings) 2:11, 11:42, 19:8, 2 Paralipomenon (2 Chronicles) 9:30, 2 Esdras (Nehemiah) 9:21, Judith 5:15, Psalms 94:10, Ezechiel 4:6, 29:11-13, Amos 5:25, Jonah 3:4, and 2 Machabees 5:2. These all have similar themes and references.

Now, in the NT, all four Gospels recount that Jesus went into the wilderness and fasted and prayed for forty days and forty nights. This is clearly a time of preparation immediately preceding His three year ministry. He is tempted by food, by worldly power, and to tempt God, Himself. Jesus fasts, He prays, and He overcomes temptation, all this to prepare for the work He was about to begin.

In Acts and some of the letters, further reference is made to the forty years in the desert at the time of Moses, but I'm not going to list those here. I think you have the main idea here.

So, why do we have this forty day period of Lent before Easter Sunday? There isn't one answer. It is a time of mourning, as when Jacob was embalmed, and we place clay (ashes) on our heads. It's a time of mourning because we remember the sacrifice of our Lord, who died on Good Friday, all those years ago. And it is appropriate because Jesus is our King of Kings.

It is a time of rebirth, both for those who are already members of the Faith, we renew our Baptismal promises on Easter Sunday, and it is a time of rebirth for those who will be receiving this Sacrament of Baptism on Easter Sunday. It is a time of preparation for those who will be receiving the Sacrament of Confirmation, preparation before receiving those particular graces that will embolden them to go forth and preach the Gospel of God to the world, to complete their mission as followers of Christ. It is a time to join with Christ in His suffering on the Cross, in order that we might die to ourselves, to our attachments to sin, and to be reborn in His image.

So, if we are to imitate Him, what should we be doing during this Lenten season, this forty days "in the desert"? The answer that He gave us: fast, pray, resist temptation.

But don't be afraid to practice these things outside of Lent either. We can always make a desert within, to continually renew our spiritual lives in Him, and prepare for our eternal rest. Lent is simply set aside as a Liturgical Season in order to remind us that these things are important, and to help us to enter back into these practices.

Yes, I think I will leave it at that. Thank you for reading, and may God bless you abundantly!

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