Our Gospel for this First Sunday of Lent tells us that Jesus was led into the desert by the Spirit to be tested, where he stayed for forty days and nights, before the Enemy arrived to tempt him.
Like the hidden years from his childhood to his baptism, the scriptures tell us nothing about these forty days and nights, except that he fasted from food. So we can safely assume he didn’t hunt, scavenge, or cook. And he probably stayed in one or two spots, since moving around would exhaust him.
The number forty is of course theologically significant: it connects us with forty days and nights of the flood and Noah’s Ark, as well as the forty years the Hebrews spent wandering in the desert after the Exodus. While theologically rich in symbolism I’d like to take this story at face value for the moment.
Imagine Jesus just being in the wilderness for 40 days and nights.
He arrives fresh-faced from his baptism, led by the Spirit to the place he will stay, alone for forty days and forty nights, the voice of God echoing in his ears: “You are my beloved Son; with You I am well-pleased.” He watches the sun set slowly, turning the sky orange, then pink, then purple, then gray. Finally darkness settles over the land. Perhaps he makes a fire for warmth and comfort. Perhaps he misses his friends and family.
The first night must have been difficult. After following John and his band of disciples for so long, he’s all alone. It’s him, God and the wilderness. Eventually he falls asleep. He awakens to moonlight bathing him and the barren lands. He gazes at the stars. He prays and drifts back to sleep.
He awakes before dawn, the sky turning silver. Slowly, imperceptibly, the light grows. What was once in darkness becomes bathed in gold. What was once cold becomes warm. What was once frightened becomes comforted. Some animals awake, others settle in to sleep.
Forty mornings. Forty nights. Imagine the hunger, the loneliness, the boredom. The wind whistles through the canyon. He breathes. He finds peace.
Slowly he settles into the aching, slow rhythm of desert life. He begins to move slower, breathe slower, pray slower. He watches the foxes in their dens, the birds in their nests, the flowers in bloom, swaying in the wind. Amidst the extremes of light and dark, heat and cold, life and death, he’s a small, solitary figure before a subtly shifting landscape.
Within him, his heart is subtlety shifting too. God’s voice is echoing within him: “You are my beloved Son, with You I am well-pleased.”
For forty long days and forty long nights, he simply is. Breathing, praying, watching, waiting.
Even for the Son of God, nothing comes easily, or instantly.
Years later, when he’s overburdened by the demands of his ministry, by the pleading of the desperate crowds, by being perpetually misunderstood by almost everyone, he will retreat back to these wild places. He will spend long nights alone under the desert sky. He will return refreshed.
Medieval mystics of several traditions use the image of the mirror to illustrate the goal of the spiritual life. Most of the time, we are like unpolished mirrors, we barely reflect God’s light. But when we polish the mirror of our hearts (or the grit of our lives polishes it for us), God and humanity intermingle in divine light, and the alienation of all things is reconciled within us. We experience union with God.
Jesus goes to the desert for the same reason we all still retreat to wild places: to let the noise fade and the true music of our lives be heard, to clean the mirror of the soul and see ourselves, and our God, more clearly.
After forty days alone, the devil arrives to tempt Jesus. The tempter is a funhouse mirror: He twists reality, exaggerating and twisting the good into evil, taking what is broken in us and inflating it, tempting us to despair.
Jesus’ own divine mission becomes twisted in the devil’s mouth: He will nourish us with his divine life: why not turn the stones to bread? He will rise again in power and glory: why not seize the kingdoms of this world as well? He is uniquely beloved by God, the Anointed, the Messiah: why not claim this special status in a way that is spectacular?
But after forty days with God in the wilderness, the mirror of Jesus’ heart is clear. Not even quoting scripture can fool him, for He sees clearly who He is in God and who God is in Him. The temptation is revealed as deception, and the Enemy retreats, to return “at an opportune time.”
Many of us may find ourselves in spiritual, emotional, or vocational deserts today. We, like Jesus, may feel weighed down, overburdened, at a loss for what to do next.
Lent is a good time for us. To breathe deeply, to settle in slowly, to watch the wilderness drift past.
Maybe with Jesus, alone in the desert, we’ll come to discover the divine light is always shining, even in the darkest nights.