Time Spent in the Desert Can Be Transformed Into a Time of Grace
A catechesis on the liturgical season of Lent that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI gave during the general audience held in the Paul VI Hall on February 22, 2012.
DEAR brothers and sisters,
In this Catechesis, I would like to reflect briefly upon the season of Lent, which begins today with the Liturgy of Ash Wednesday. It is a journey of 40 days that will lead us to the Easter Triduum—the memorial of the Lord’s Passion, Death and Resurrection, the heart of the mystery of our salvation. In the first centuries of the Church’s life, this was the time when those who had heard and received the announcement of Christ began, step by step, their journey of faith and conversion on the way to receiving the sacrament of Baptism. It was a time of drawing near to the living God and an initiation into the faith, which was gradually to be accomplished through an inner transformation on the part of the catechumens; that is, on the part of those who desired to become Christians and to be incorporated into Christ and the Church.
Later on, also penitents and then all the faithful were invited to live out this journey of spiritual renewal and to increasingly conform their own lives to Christ’s. The participation of the entire community in the various stages of the Lenten journey underlines an important dimension of Christian spirituality: It is the redemption not of some, but of all, made possible thanks to the death and resurrection of Christ. For this reason, both those who were making the journey of faith as catechumens in order to receive Baptism, as well as those who had distanced themselves from God and from the community of faith and who were seeking reconciliation, and also those who were living the faith in full communion with the Church—everyone together knew that the time preceding Easter was a time of metanoia; that is, of a change of heart, of penance. It is the season that identifies our human life and all of history as a process of conversion set in motion now so as to meet the Lord at the end of time.
Using an expression that has become customary in the Liturgy, the Church calls the season we have entered today “Lent”; that is, the season of 40 days; and with a clear reference to Sacred Scripture, she thereby introduces us into a precise spiritual context. Forty, in fact, is the symbolic number that the Old and New Testaments use to represent the salient moments in the life and faith of Israel. It is a number that expresses the time of waiting, of purification, of return to the Lord, of knowledge that God is faithful to His promises. This number does not represent an exact chronological period of time, marked by the sum of its days. Rather, it indicates a patient perseverance, a long trial, a sufficient length of time to witness the works of God and a time when it is necessary to decide to accept one’s responsibilities without further delay. It is a time for mature decisions.
The number 40 first appears in the story of Noah. This just man, on account of the flood, spends 40 days and 40 nights in the ark, together with his family and the animals that God had told him to take with him. And he waits another 40 days, after the flood, before touching down upon dry land, saved from destruction (cf. Genesis 7:4,12; 8:6). Then, the next stage: Moses remains on Mount Sinai, in the presence of the Lord, for 40 days and 40 nights, to receive the Law. He fasts the entire time (cf. Exodus 24:18). For 40 years, the Hebrew people journey from Egypt to the Promised Land, a fitting time to experience the faithfulness of God. “And you shall remember all the way which the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness … your clothing did not wear out upon you, and your foot did not swell, these forty years,” Moses says in Deuteronomy at the end of the 40 years of migration (Deuteronomy 8:2,4). The years of peace Israel enjoys under the Judges are 40 (cf. Judges 3:11,30); but once this time has passed, they begin to forget God’s gifts and to return to sin. The prophet Elijah takes 40 days to reach Horeb, the mountain where he encounters God (cf. 1 Kings 19:8). For 40 days, the inhabitants of Ninevah do penance in order to obtain God’s pardon (cf. Genesis 3:4). Forty is also the number of years of the reign of Saul (cf. Acts 13:21), of David (cf. 2 Samuel 5:4-5) and of Solomon (cf. 1 Kings 11:41), the first three kings of Israel.
The Psalms also reflect the biblical significance of the 40 years; for example, Psalm 95, the passage we just heard: “O that today you would hearken to His voice! Harden not your hearts, as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah in the wilderness, when your fathers tested me, and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work. For forty years I loathed that generation and said, ‘They are a people who err in heart, and they do not regard my ways’” (verses. 7c-10).
In the New Testament, before beginning His public ministry, Jesus retires into the desert for 40 days, neither eating nor drinking (cf. Matthew 4:2); His nourishment is the Word of God, which He uses as a weapon to conquer the devil. The temptations of Jesus recall those which the Jewish people faced in the desert, but which they were unable to overcome. For 40 days, the Risen Jesus instructs His disciples before ascending into Heaven and sending the Holy Spirit (cf. Acts 1:3).
With the recurring number of 40, a spiritual atmosphere is described which remains relevant and valid. And the Church, precisely through these days of Lent, intends to preserve their enduring value and to make their efficacy present for us. The Christian Liturgy during Lent seeks to promote a path of spiritual renewal in light of this long biblical experience, above all for the sake of learning to imitate Jesus, who during the 40 days He spent in the desert, taught us to conquer temptation with the Word of God.
The 40 years of Israel’s wandering in the desert presents ambivalent attitudes and situations. On the one hand, it is the season of first love with God, and between God and His people, when He speaks to their hearts, pointing out to them the path to follow. God, as it were, had taken up His abode with Israel; He went before them in a cloud and a column of fire; each day, He provided for their nourishment by making manna descend from the heavens and by making water gush forth from the rock. Therefore, the years Israel passed in the desert can be seen as the time of their being especially chosen by God and of their clinging to Him: the time of first love.
On the other hand, the Bible also portrays another image of Israel’s wandering in the desert: It is also the time of the greatest temptation and peril, when Israel murmurs against her God and wishes to return to paganism and to build her own idols, out of the need she feels to worship a God who is closer and more tangible. It is also the time of rebellion against the great and invisible God.
This ambivalence, a time of special closeness to God—the time of first love—as well as a time of temptation—the temptation to return to paganism—we surprisingly rediscover in Jesus’ earthy sojourn; naturally, however, without any compromise with sin. After His baptism of penance in the Jordan—when He takes upon Himself the destiny of God’s Servant, who renounces himself and lives for others and takes his place among sinners in order to take upon himself the sin of the world—Jesus goes into the desert and remains there for 40 days in profound union with the Father, thus repeating the history of Israel, all the rhythms of the 40 days or years I mentioned. This dynamic is a constant during the earthly life of Jesus, who always seeks moments of solitude in order to pray to His Father and to remain in intimate communion, in intimate solitude with Him, in exclusive communion with Him, then to return among the people. But in this time of “desert” and of special encounter with the Father, Jesus is exposed to danger and is assailed by temptation and the seduction of the Evil One, who proposes another Messianic way, one distant from God’s design, for it passes by way of power, success, and domination and not by way of the total gift of the Cross. These are the alternatives: a Messianism of power, of success, or a Messianism of love, of self-gift.
This situation of ambivalence also characterizes the condition of the Church as she journeys in the “desert” of the world and of history. In this “desert,” we who believe certainly have the opportunity to have a profound experience of God, who strengthens the spirit, confirms faith, nourishes hope and inspires charity. It is an experience that makes us sharers in Christ’s victory over sin and death through His Sacrifice of love on the Cross. But the “desert” is also a negative aspect of the reality that surrounds us: aridity; the poverty of words of life and values; secularism and cultural materialism, which enclose people within the worldly horizons of an existence bereft of all reference to the transcendent. This is also the environment in which even heaven above us is obscured, for it is covered by the clouds of egoism, misunderstanding and deception. Despite this, also for the Church today, time spent in the desert can be transformed into a time of grace, for we have the certainty that God can make the living water that quenches thirst and brings refreshment gush forth even from the hardest rock.
Dear brothers and sisters, we can find in these 40 days that lead us to the Easter of Resurrection the renewed hope that enables us to accept every difficulty, affliction and trial with patience and with faith, in the knowledge that out of the darkness the Lord will make a new day to dawn. And if we have been faithful to Jesus by following Him along the way of the Cross, the radiant world of God, the world of light, of truth and of joy will be restored to us: It will be the new dawn created by God Himself. I wish a blessed journey of Lent to you all!