In our liturgy and imagination, Lent is figured as a journey through the desert, where we spend 40 days living in a barren land with bare necessities, like Jesus’ own days in the desert. Fasting, praying, and almsgiving each provide ways to search out only that which is necessary for life; we are given the question: “Will I find that God alone suffices, just as Jesus did when he was tempted?”
This week’s scriptures give us some more images for our desert sojourn. In today’s first reading, we find Moses in the desert, taking refuge. He has been on the run, since he had murdered an Egyptian; yet even despite that, God shows himself to Moses in the burning bush. This dry desert where Moses has hidden in fear becomes a place of grace. Yet the grace God gives comes with a call: God asks Moses to return to Egypt, where the pharaoh and others are still hunting him down – and save the Israelites from slavery. The grace Moses receives in the desert enables Moses to return to Egypt, and in turn, God will show grace through Moses and lead the people through the Red Sea.
The second reading offers a typological account of Moses after he has saved the people from slavery in Egypt and they find themselves wandering in the desert (this time, for 40 years). Here, Paul retells Moses’ story to the church at Corinth. Paul uses images from the peoples’ desert wanderings toward the land of Canaan to suggest that Moses and the Israelites are also a story about Christ and his Church. The Israelites were baptized in the Red Sea and saved from slavery; we have been baptized into the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and thereby saved from slavery. The Israelites were fed with manna, honey, water – just as Christians are fed with God’s own food at the heavenly banquet of the Eucharist. The “spiritual rock” that follows the Israelites is, in fact, Jesus Christ, several hundred years before his incarnation, death, and resurrection. We are so similar to the Israelites, Paul says.
But this is also a warning to us, for Paul notes that the desert became, not a refuge, but a dry place indeed. Many of the Israelites refused to see and experience God’s grace; they professed hatred for the manna and the other gifts God gave. So Paul admonishes: do not follow those of your spiritual forebears who desired “evil things,” who greedily wanted more of God, who arrogantly made assumptions about God’s salvation. Instead, take this opportunity while you are in this Lenten desert to practice desiring good things.
Then in the Gospel reading, Jesus takes up the theme: take your opportunities where you can get them! There were Galileans that Pilate had murdered, perhaps in the midst of a religious ritual. Yes this is very bad, Jesus acknowledges. But he also points out: these Galileans weren’t any worse than other Galileans. Indeed, being apparently more guilty than anyone else isn’t going to save us from these disasters or from death.
Through the parable of the fig tree Jesus suggests instead that the point is to live as fruitfully as possible. The threat of death may always be near, but the possibility of living as God’s own people by living in love is always, always possible. The tree owner may have threatened to cut down the fig tree, but the gardener suggests, “Why not see what kind of fruit may be possible?”
So it is with us. In this Lenten desert, what shall we choose to see? Will we choose to see God’s gifts, even in the midst of the dryness? I am reminded here, very much of the dryness that the pandemic has wrought in so many ways. And yet there have remained small opportunities on occasion – the one I recall most is the stark change in pollution around cities as the lock downs occurred. Now that is not to say the the lockdowns were all good any more than the lack of water in the desert is all good. But it is to note that, if we allow it, God will indeed offer us transformation in ways that we perhaps cannot possibly see now.
May we use this Lent to search the face of God alone and seek out God’s gracious gifts.