Springtime in the Desert
Let’s stop for a moment and think about our stereotypes of Lent. What words come to mind for you?
“Dull, dreary, and sad,” some might say.
“Long and boring,” others might say.
“Sin and death and the day of vengeance of our God!” others might crow triumphantly.
I had one parishioner at a former church, a 3-year-old, who told me solemnly on Ash Wednesday, “I don’t like Lent because it makes me sneeze.” As good a characterization as any, I suppose.
Would it surprise you to know that the origin of the word “Lent” is the Old English word for “springtime”?
Yes, we do talk about sin and mortality in Lent, and there is an appropriate solemnity for doing that.
But if you think that’s the whole story of Lent, you’re missing out.
Lent is springtime in the desert.
And we are given an amazing opportunity each year to take part in it.
Let’s think about that strange juxtaposition of terms: springtime in the desert.
Both parts matter. It’s not just springtime—new life and blooming flowers and singing birds.
And it’s not just the desert—emptiness and challenge and wandering in search of sustenance.
It’s springtime in the desert.
What does that mean for us in our spiritual lives?
Let’s trace the concept through our scriptures. We begin with the story of the Fall in Genesis.
Adam and Eve are certainly in a spring-like environment. The Garden of Eden was bursting with life and beauty all around them.
But they had a fatal need to pursue status—“We want to be bigger and better, just like God!”
And that led them to their unwise decision.
A poverty of believing that God had already provided them everything they needed took hold of them and made them vulnerable to the Serpent’s manipulation, and they ate the fruit.
So even in Paradise, Adam and Eve were in a desert within their own hearts, searching for something to eat.
They didn’t need physical food, that was all around them in the Garden.
But they developed a hunger for prestige, standing, self-importance.
They were in a desert within, lost and wandering, unable to see the richness all around them.
The love of God came second place to human insecurity.
“We’re not enough!” they thought, “And this fruit will make us more!”
The desert of human fear and weakness invaded the springtime glory of Eden, and the first human beings were driven from spring in Paradise out into the desert of the world.
And yet it wasn’t all bad. As English mystic Julian of Norwich said, “First there is the fall, then there is the recovery from the fall. Both are the mercy of God!”
As painful as Adam and Eve’s failure and expulsion from the Garden were to them personally, they paved the way for two important things.
First, we humans will never again be able to deny our fundamental need for God.
We know that we have inherited that bone-deep “not-enough-ness” that our two Biblical ancestors demonstrated, and our lives on Earth are the pursuit of gradually welcoming the love of God more and more to fill that aching void.
And in some important way, Adam and Eve’s fall makes possible salvation!
I think it’s certainly possible and even likely that Jesus would have come to be with us on Earth regardless of whether we needed “saving,” because he loves us and wanted to teach us and be with us.
But the Fall is an important part of the story that leads to the Cross and the Resurrection.
Because of Adam and Eve, we are in fundamental need of healing, and Jesus gave us himself, his life and his death, to heal us.
This is a powerful example of springtime in the desert, life coming out of the most desolate and unpromising place.
This is the richness we are invited to explore in Lent.
Let’s talk about what the desert means in our lives.
You may find yourself in one deep and lonely desert, or you may have multiple faces of the desert manifesting in your life right now.
Perhaps your desert is one of loss. Someone important in your life has died, and you wander alone and beaten down in the trackless waste of grief.
Perhaps your desert is one of self-hatred. Lent can be dangerous for you, because your already potent inability to believe God would love you for who you really are can be kicked into high gear by our emphases on sin and penitence in this season.
Perhaps your desert is one of fear and anxiety. The snakes, reptiles and even demons of the desert are terrifyingly real to you in your desert of worrying, of knowing the worst is coming, of being convinced you will fail at any moment and it will all come crashing down.
Maybe your desert is one of the ones that’s hard to see, one that everyone else but you can see has you trapped.
Have you considered you might be lost in the invisible desert of pride?
You feel confident of yourself, even grateful for the blessings in your life, and multiple times a day you think about how glad you are that you aren’t as immoral and deluded as your political enemy, as annoying and stupid as your office mate, or even as irritating and unhelpful as your spouse.
Those invisible deserts are the most dangerous, deserts like apathy, greed, self-congratulation, and unconscious racism.
The desert is above all a place of temptation.
In our deserts of wounding, like grief and physical infirmity, we are tempted to give into despair.
In our deserts of sin, like self-superiority and deceit, we are tempted to a joyful blindness that we’re even there.
The fundamental nature of all the temptations of the desert is the same, for us and for Jesus.
The fundamental temptation of the desert, which is the fundamental temptation of life, is to deny, ignore, and avoid our true identity.
Think that through for a moment.
The deserts of sin are usually about denying our humble nature as humans, our weakness, our frailty, the 100% certainty that we will never be completely holy.
And the deserts of woundedness are less a denial of who we are and more a forgetting—amid the pain we’re struggling to bear, we forget that we are God’s beloved, God’s most precious, the ones whom God will send angels to bear up lest we dash our foot against a stone.
In both types of desert temptation, we somehow think we’re alone, alone in our greatness or alone in our smallness. And without our faithful partner, the Living God, we forget who we are.
You are a beloved child of God.
You are the person for whom God broke every rule God ever ordained.
You are the person for whom God abandons propriety and responsibility and even logic to bring to safety, to bring to life, to bring to love.
You must know this, you must learn this, until it is deeper in you than your very DNA.
And Lent, the desert we enter in spring, is your blessed opportunity to let that identity stamp itself on your bones.
Both power and pain will be important parts of your journey, but at your deepest levels, you don’t need either one.
Because underneath it all, you are the image and likeness of Love itself, and letting that truth transform you is your call.
Does that give you a little more courage to enter the desert willingly?
Let’s make the turn here and return to our original idea: Lent is springtime in the desert.
We are called to the desert in ecclesiastical time just as spring arrives in chronological time.
The church calls us to solidarity with Jesus in the wilderness of sin and temptation and loneliness, while nature calls us to witness new life bursting forth all around us in green and musical growth.
What we forget is that the two are not mutually exclusive.
Springtime in the desert is a fleeting and precious time.
Riots of short-lived but brilliantly colored wildflowers spring up among the rocks.
Birds and even butterflies make themselves known, while swathes of fragile and radiant green track through the eternal and faithful brown of the sands.
Sudden downpours create flash flooding streams, only to ebb away into the holy silence of the arid valleys.
This is springtime in the desert, a chaotic juxtaposition of emptiness and growth, privation and abundance, death and resurrection.
So follow Jesus into the desert in your life. Do not fear it.
This is the gift of Lent, to search for springtime in the desert.
God wants to show you how life and growth and possibility are present in the places of pain and shame in your heart.
For Jesus, his time in the desert was the birth of his ministry.
Who knows? It might just be the same for you.
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