My cousin in Arizona loves to post photos of the desert landscape from his back deck: cactus and rosy sunsets in the background, sausage and peppers grilling in the foreground.
Around here, the season of Lent coincides with the season of mud: rains on thawed ground and an occasional snowfall that turns any unpaved surface into shoe-wrecking slop.
So it’s a little hard to journey with Jesus, into the desert. But it’s a good metaphor to step into, even during the long, gray March of Philadelphia.
If we do it right, our walk into the desert’s heat by day and cold by night forces us to leave behind what we really don’t need and to rely on what God alone provides.
Since that is part of my daily prayer throughout the year, I need to ask: What is different about the 40 days of Lent, and what is different about this Lent in 2017?
One thing is the Age of Convenience in which we live. On Ash Wednesday, many Protestant churches have for years offered drive-through distribution of ashes. This week I learned that a friend’s Catholic parish in Florida sets up a lane in the church parking lot, where drivers can find a priest stationed on one side and a deacon on the other making the ashen sign of the cross on pausing foreheads.
The parish also offers seven Ash Wednesday Masses, so it’s not like they’re taking the easy way out. Maybe it’s a sign of the fast-paced times in which we live, or a retailer’s strategy to make it as easy on the consumer as possible.
It’s tempting to sit idling and “get your ashes” while missing the lesson of the season — to get up and walk with Jesus. It’s a scary trip, and not without sacrifice if we take a fearless look within. We’re likely to find the hurts, the prejudices, the fears and the sinfulness that we stuff into the dark parts of our heart.
But Lent invites us – or rather pulls us by the ear like Mom – to fess up to whatever sins lie in those corners of the heart. We’d prefer to convince ourselves they aren’t so bad, or that’s just the way we are and we really can’t be expected to purge our hearts of sin.
No, we really can’t do it alone. But through grace, Christ can lift away the sins we lift up to him, so that we can live through the Spirit that resides within us. The reason for fasting, for giving to charity and for fervent prayer is to probe our own hearts more deeply.
The desert of our hearts is a place that requires a lot of courage to walk through. But we don’t go it alone. Weekly confession, daily Mass, a rosary or stations of the cross devotion, even 15 minutes to read Scripture and pray in the morning or at night – these are traditional Catholic aids on that rough walk.
They make it a bit easier to get to the heart of the matter; who knew the church had anticipated the Age of Convenience?
We might find in that desert some hidden springs of water bubbling up where we hadn’t seen them before. And not only at the journey’s culmination on Easter, but here and now, in Lent’s early days.
By water, I mean the refreshment of a prayer concluded in the silence of our heart as we are sitting in traffic, standing in a line or (my favorite) meditating in a quiet room at home while everyone else is sleeping.
That’s the kind of water, along with the challenge, that awaits in the desert of Lent. Now is the time to lace up our boots and slog through the windy streets and muddy ground where we dwell, one day at a time, with the Lord.