To ask why we do Lent is to ask why Jesus was driven into the wilderness.
With Lent, we know that Easter comes next, so couldn’t we just skip right to it? In a certain sense, we could, because that’s what a lot of people do already. But of course the answer is no because Jesus didn’t skip right to it. And even if we were to go straight to Easter, we’d still have to ask why Jesus was crucified in order to die the death that was necessary for the resurrection in the first place. If not Lent, then Good Friday.
With Jesus’ time in the wilderness, we know that he was baptized just before and declared to be the Beloved Son in whom the Father is well pleased. Hardly the kind of event that sends you off by your lonesome -- “Happy Birthday! Now go to your room.” Indeed, the passage would run pretty seamlessly if the whole bit about the wilderness were redacted entirely. If it went straight from “You are my Son, the Beloved, in whom I am well pleased” to “Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God.”
But it doesn’t transition like that. We must endure these forty days of Lent and Jesus must be driven from the height of divine affirmation and into the desert to be tempted by Satan. And the text says that he was driven “immediately.” So there is something about Jesus’ identity as the Beloved Son of God that abruptly demands that he undergo great affliction in the wilderness for forty days. And there is something about that affliction which reveals the human condition, which is ultimately what we dramatize during Lent.
First, the identity of Jesus as the Beloved Son of God. The biblical image of the Son of God is one of perfect alignment with the will of God. The son who is about his father’s business. And Jesus achieved this perfect obedience on account of being God in the flesh. Every motivation, every intention, was exercised with perfect harmony between his human will and his divine will. Perfect alignment, perfect obedience, perfect harmony. An analogy I came across captures it well: if you were to look at a window without a single scratch, smudge, or speck of dust, it would be completely invisible as a window. Its transparency would provide a clear and uninhibited view of what’s outside. And this is because a window performs its function precisely in its disappearance, even as it remains fully present, fully there. It’s kind of like that with Jesus and the Father. Jesus was fully present as a human on earth, flesh and blood, but his embodiment in no way obscured the view of the Father whom he revealed. And this was because he was without sin -- without scratch, smudge, or speck of dust -- and thus did not assert himself over and against the Father.
And isn’t this our problem again and again, by the way? We assert ourselves by separation not only from God but from each other. The self that I know is the self that has become “a possession, a property, something to be proud of,” as Herbert McCabe puts it. Or, even better, according to Simone Weil, “the self is only the shadow which sin and error cast by stopping the light of God.” It’s what the window analogy was getting at, only it’s not just that we have scratches and smudges, it’s that we are afraid of becoming transparent, and so we refuse to give up our scratches and our smudges because at least they’re ours and they remind us that we’re still there. We locate the source of our selfhood in what is ours rather than in what is given to us by God, even if what is ours is our sin. And since sin has no reality of its own, we have to give reality to it. Simone Weil goes so far as to say that the reality of the world as we experience it is “the reality of the self which we transfer onto things.” It’s not real until it’s ours. “We are attached to the possession of a thing because we think that if we cease to possess it, it will cease to exist,” she says. Seriously, try to wrap your head around this. Weil is saying that most of the time, we don’t actually see ourselves for what we really are, and as a result, we don’t even see the world around us for what it is. We are bound up in illusions and distortions; it is like we prefer to live in a hall of mirrors rather than accept the real world that we would encounter outside.
But Jesus is the one human being who lived without any such distortion. He had no perverse investment in claiming anything as properly his own. “For I come not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me.” This is what it means for Jesus to receive the voice of heaven that he is the Beloved Son. But this still leaves unanswered the question of why he was immediately driven into the wilderness. If God is so proud of his Son, why must he undergo affliction?
Again, to look at ourselves by way of contrast is revealing. It’s no coincidence that our chronic impulse to claim ourselves as our own apart from God and others has no tolerance for affliction. Because affliction chips away at the very self that we’re trying to protect. It exposes our vulnerability, which is to say that it points us towards our own death. It makes us a little bit more transparent. And our fear of transparency is nothing other than our fear of death. When you put all of us together into vast societies, our aversion to suffering and death becomes a collective exercise. It’s what St. Augustine called “the lust for domination” that characterizes all human society. And if that’s the world that Jesus comes into, then being the Son of God is going to necessarily entail a certain detachment from that world. The detachment of solitude and temptation and affliction. Jesus’ time in the wilderness therefore dramatizes in a way the entirety of his life on earth. It is what a human life looks like at both its fullest and its emptiest. The fullness and emptiness are one and the same. It is the mystery of the human condition. Jesus knew the truth that we are constantly living in denial of: that those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life will save it. This is why being the Beloved Son in human flesh meant being driven into the wilderness, why he lived a life of poverty, and ultimately, why he died on the cross. To live is to die.
Incidentally, this is where we find God’s preference for the poor and the suffering. To be clear, it’s not because of a morbid romanticism about suffering that Jesus stands with those who mourn and suffer. And we are not called to fetishize them. Rather, it’s because of the simple fact that the world that is created by the lust for domination doesn’t actually include everyone. There are victims of such lust, those who have never had the privilege to commit the sin of self-assertion. The poor and the marginalized already know full well what it means to be broken. But what Jesus shows is that the resurrection into the fellowship with God begins in brokenness. This is the ground for our solidarity with them.
So to sum it up, Jesus was driven into the wilderness because in such a world as ours, the life of perfect obedience demands a direct conflict with the human temptation towards self-assertion that defines our world.
Herein lies the basic continuity between the season of Lent and the entire human experience. Our temporary renunciation of earthly goods during these forty days exposes those things that we have projected ourselves onto. It exposes where we have created a false reality which inhibits our obedience to God. The disciplines of Lent begin to slowly work on those scratches that distort the light of God passing through us. Lent puts forth the challenge and the risk to relinquish our anxious grip on our selves. And so it is a kind of practice for death.
Our shared Lenten guide book captures this well. This coming week’s discipline is to abstain from sweets and treats -- a pretty trivial renunciation, to be sure, but one which nevertheless has a lot of potential. What are those moments of tedium or stress that we escape from by way of an indulgence rather than enduring them in prayer? With the following week, we are led to practice anonymous acts of servanthood. Whether it’s giving to the poor specifically or not, these sorts of actions take on the form of almsgiving. It creates a lack in our own life and fills a lack in another’s. It thereby reverses all these little casual and often unintended acts of exploitation that we commit against another. The next week we take up the Daily Office. This is a sort of fasting of the attention. Whether in the morning or in the evening, it is a complete dedication of segment of time to the inner life of prayer to God, reorienting the rest of the day which so easily comes to revolve around the self. And the rest of the weeks’ disciplines perform similar functions. In each of them, what we find is an intention to suspend the self. And our commitment to join together in these disciplines speaks to the possibility of a community not founded on the lust for domination. Perhaps the love of God and the love of neighbor to which all these practices are directed could come to define not just a single individual’s life, but the life of the whole. Our collective transparency could reveal a glimpse of the Kingdom of God.
In the meantime, in this mortal life, the message is clear: we’re all in this together because no one gets out alive. “And this is what Lent is for,” to conclude with some final words from Herbert McCabe. “It reminds us that we come through death to life, through denial of self to our true selves, and it helps us to start the process -- so that we may be ready for the final Easter when we rise in glory and freedom to live for eternity in the love of God.” Amen.