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Once More, into the Wilderness

“Fasting cleanses the soul, raises the mind, subjects one’s flesh to the spirit, renders the heart contrite and humble, scatters the clouds of concupiscence, quenches the fire of lust, kindles the true light of chastity.”

“Fasting and almsgiving are ‘the two wings of prayer’ which enable it to gain momentum and more easily reach even to God.” Saint Augustine

Once more, we enter into the wilderness of Lent. Just as the people of Israel spent 40 years in the wilderness, Jesus spends 40 days in the Judean wilderness, to be tempted by Satan. Thomas Aquinas points out that Jesus did not go for the temptation itself, but to meet Satan on the open field of battle. This is what the word the Gospel writers use for this desert is: a place where human beings do not live. It is, in a sense, out of the world, a personless place, deprived of friendship and the safety of community. 

Lent, to be sure, has deeply communal aspects. We begin the season with fasting and ashes, not as individuals, but as the Church. I've always found it a bit funny that on Ash Wednesday, we read Jesus warnings to not disfigure our faces and then do that very thing. But, the ashes are not about individual piety - that must be done in secret. They are about beginning in community that which will be carried out in secret, behind closed doors. All of this rekindled piety, including prayer, fasting, and almsgiving is mean to express interior conversion of life, not only towards God (prayer) and to our neighbors (almsgiving), but within our inmost selves, which is prominently expressed in fasting. 

Jesus went out into the desert after his baptism in the Jordan, temporarily leaving behind the very human beings he was sent to save. He does so in a representative fashion, representing all of humanity before God and doing battle with the Enemy as a champion. This is done, first, because all meaningful or effective ministry begins in contemplation and prayer, aided by fasting. Second, it is done because the ministry of Jesus is not primarily about restoring human beings to glory. That comes later. First, it is found in the eternal giving of himself to the Father. The various temptations prove that the Gospel is not about setting the world to right by the exercise of divine power, or about good works to the poor, or even about victory over death, but a world restored to fruitfulness, glory, and eternal life. Jesus, then, embraces the suffering of hunger and the isolation of the wilderness and then the temptations of Satan, and the only reason he is able to endure, is that his interior heart is attuned to the Father, standing like a rock in the midst of the sea.

If we are to enter into this Lenten wilderness well, it must be that our aim is not a happy life, or to lose weight, or to gain more focus, or even to be a better neighbor. We go into the wilderness to seek Jesus, to be with him in the quiet and the barrenness, seeking a deeply personal and interior life of devotion to God and the mortification of all sinful desires.

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