The full moon shines high above, casting its lustre on the strange landscape and silhouetting the jagged ridges of the mountains so that they look two-dimensional, like stage scenery on some vast set. Above, stars and planets gleam in a perfectly cloudless sky. The heavenly bodies seem strangely close to the serrated mountain peaks.
I am in the Arizona desert, having travelled to Phoenix to do some ongoing formation for the clergy of this vast diocese of 1.3 million Catholics, and some ongoing formation for the Grief to Grace teams here, now in their fifth year. There isn’t much time for sightseeing; it’s an intense few days, but a brief foray into the countryside gives me a taste of the silence of the desert.
I don’t know how this compares to the Judean desert. I suspect the nights are colder there, but inevitably my thoughts turn to Jesus’s 40 days in the wilderness. It occurs to me that if we view Jesus’s desert experience through our own weakness we will focus on one aspect of it only: as a kind of test of endurance. We will see Jesus pushing himself to the limits in a hostile environment: the desert as the enemy which renders him vulnerable to the Devil. This will affect how we live our own Lent.
The Gospels are clear that the Spirit drives Jesus there. The Spirit will never drive Jesus away from the Father, so we have to say that in some way the Father was to be found more readily at that point in Jesus’s life in the desert. The desert was the place where God first taught his people how he is to be worshipped and served, that he may be depended on to direct their lives towards the salvific safety of his Promised Land. The desert is not punishment unless you forget that He is with you, and refuse to believe that His miracles will compensate for the privations of your sensory appetite. The desert is the place to learn to hunger for the food that lasts. This food is to do the will of the Father.
Jesus entering into the hostile environment of the desert to defeat the Devil was a kind of prelude to his entering into the hostile environment of suffering and death to rout him even more completely. The Israelites were slow to recognise the love which had brought them out of slavery because slavery had blunted their sense of freedom. They confused the subsistence gratification of food from their taskmasters with freedom.
Despite the mighty deeds they had seen, the Israelites hark back to their bondage because it filled their bellies, even though it was crushing their spirits. Paradoxically, even when they had escaped, it was fear of suffering, of God not being enough, which held them captive.
We are likewise paralysed by our fears of what seems to threaten physical death and decay. This is why Jesus goes into the hostile environment: to teach us that we will survive it if we do as he did and trust that even there the Father’s love sustains.
Suffering appears to us as a desert, a place of privation, but actually it’s a place made by God. A hostile environment acquires a different kind of beauty.