If I asked you “does the season of Lent have a geography?” you might say, “sure, it’s the wilderness.” Of course, that makes sense because the story that begins Lent and inspires our journey through its forty days is about Jesus being “led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Matt. 4:1).
But think about that for a minute. Imagine Jesus going into the wilderness. What does that look like? An arid, barren desert, probably, hot and dusty, with the sun beating down on a solitary figure walking away from you. Perfectly reasonable, I guess, given the part of the world where Jesus lived. It’s all barren desert in the Middle East, right?
Is it, really? I don’t know, I’ve never been there. It sure seems to be, in the movies and on the news. But I don’t know for sure and I wonder how relevant that is to me. To me, a wilderness could just as easily be in northern Alberta or southern Saskatchewan, it could be north of the Arctic Circle or the parking lot at West Edmonton Mall when the mall’s closed. A wilderness doesn’t have to be a barren wasteland (except that last one), it could be a place of great beauty.
In fact, it seems like the best way to describe a natural wilderness is to say that it’s been undisturbed by human activity. That might make it a very attractive place for us to go, wouldn’t it? There would be things to see that we hadn’t seen before, perhaps, beautiful and interesting things that we would wonder at. There’d be opportunities to do things we’d not done before, things that might challenge us as well as comfort us, things that might lead us to discover new things about the world and about ourselves.
That doesn’t sound much like the Lenten wilderness we’re familiar with, does it? We know it as a dark place, the devil’s there and there’s temptations and we’re supposed to fast, giving up things we enjoy. That doesn’t sound very inviting. I’m not sure that I’d want to go there unless I had a very good reason.
That’s why I’d like to reframe Lent, though. There is a good reason to go there, to go into the wilderness. In each of the gospel accounts, Jesus is baptized by John in the Jordan River, he goes into the wilderness and then begins his ministry. I think Jesus went into the wilderness for the same reason we might: to discover. He went to learn about himself, to consider opportunities as well as temptations and how he might handle them, to wonder about how he might proceed with his life and, most importantly, to boldly go where he hadn’t gone before.
Yeah, I stole that from Star Trek, but it’s nonetheless true here - and for us - also. Jesus, Matthew says, was led by the Spirit. I bet the Spirit inspired Jesus with those same words Jesus will use so often in his ministry: don’t be afraid. He went with the Spirit, as we all can. You can go in fear or in curiosity, looking for problems or opportunities, hurt or joy, despair or hope, doubt or faith. You can engage what you find with hate or love. Go with love and go boldly.
If you’d like to keep an old tradition and give up something for Lent, how about giving up fear?