Over and over again we are tempted to take the easy way out—the pleasures of creature comforts, the glamour of power, a healthy cynicism toward promises of goodness and salvation. Is this where our identity lies? If we are to discover our identity as Christians, we must accept the fact that this identity must be sought in the desert.
The Gospel for the First Sunday of Lent recounts the story of Jesus’ temptation in the desert. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus receives the title “beloved son” at his baptism. “Filled with the Holy Spirit,” Jesus is led by that same spirit into the desert to embrace that identity.
In the Hebrew tradition, the desert was the great place of testing during the exodus journey. An entire generation of Israelites wandered, rebelled and ultimately perished during the 40-year desert journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. The desert was the place where they were formed as the people of God, the chosen ones of the great covenant.
Sometimes we choose to enter into the desert. Many of the fasting traditions associated with Lent are based on this idea. Denying our physical and psychological hungers can reveal a yawning emptiness that we might not know is there. It is when we are most aware of our weaknesses that despair is the most tempting. It is when we are hungry that we think we will do anything for bread.
Other times, we are led into a spiritual desert by circumstances—serious illness, the loss of a job, the death of a loved one—and in that emptiness, too, we can be tempted to despair and hopelessness. We know that the only way out is through and we pray for strength on the journey.
In either case, what makes the biggest difference in the journey is being secure in the name the Lord has spoken in the depths of our hearts. We, too, are called to be sons and daughters of God. Through our baptism and confirmation, we, too, are filled with the Holy Spirit. In the starkness of the desert, we discover the undying love is ours when we’ve given up everything that doesn’t lead us to the Lord.
Only after we have emptied ourselves can the Lord fill us. The way of Jesus of Nazareth leads not only through the desert, but to the cross. Only through death is there life. This is the covenant God has made with his people, a covenant sealed with the love and compassion of his only son. We can’t use our identity as sons and daughters for our own advantage, to satisfy selfish and often secular desires. Neither can we test God in his commitment to us. He has promised us the ultimate gift of life and we have to believe in this promise.
If we accept the covenant, if we are to live this love, then we must also give back to the Lord all the benefits of our healing. When we finally come through the desert, when our lives are fruitful once more, we delight in giving the Lord the best of this abundance as he has so lavishly showered us with his blessings. When Moses speaks to the Israelites, they are ready to enter the Promised Land. He knows that abundance can be more of a temptation than hunger. Like the Israelites, we can never forget that all we have comes from the Lord.