Thursday, March 11, 2010
Lent: The Romance of the Wilderness
I've recently been intrigued by two themes which seem to run through Lent: the desert and nuptiality. On the one hand, Lent is a "desert" experience, in which our forty days of self-denial are meant to bring us into closer communion with Christ who fasted forty days in the desert (or "wilderness"). On the other hand, Lent is a preparatory time in the Church as catechumens prepare for their Nuptial Bath (Baptism) and the Wedding Feast of the Lamb (the Eucharist). So, for catechumens and, to a lesser extant, the rest of the Church that spiritually accompanies them on this journey, Lent has the aspect of the final days of courtship and preparation for a spiritual marriage. Nuptial themes run through some of the readings from the Gospel of John used during Lent and the Holy Triduum (Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter).
But the juxtaposition of desert imagery with the joy of wedding preparation seems incongruous; except that they are conjoined in a beautiful passage of Scripture:
Hos. 2:14 “Therefore, behold, I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her. 15 And there I will give her her vineyards, and make the Valley of Achor a door of hope. And there she shall answer as in the days of her youth, as at the time when she came out of the land of Egypt. 16 “And in that day, says the LORD, you will call me, ‘My husband,’ and no longer will you call me, ‘My Baal.’
In this passage, the prophet Hosea speaks to Northern Israel and promises a resumption, at some future date, of the nuptial (spousal, covenantal) relationship between the LORD and his wayward people. The place of the nuptial tryst between the LORD and Israel is described as "the wilderness"--in part because it was in the wilderness that Israel first entered into a covenant relationship with the LORD (at Sinai, Exodus 24). But what does this mean for us?
Lent, when lived well, is a desert experience in which we deny ourselves many of the comforts that usually pad our existence, and the addictive crutches we turn to when stressed. We practice, to greater or lesser extents, sensory deprivation that recalls the barren wilderness of Judea, which offers little to comfort the senses. The advantage of sensory deprivation, however, is that there is less to distract. The wilderness does not have the flashing lights and allurements of Times Square. In the wilderness, one can focus. One can concentrate. And that may be another reason that the LORD leads his people into the wilderness to allure her. In the desert she will not be distracted. In the desert she can focus once more on her beloved. The intent of the Church is that in the desert of Lent we would deny ourselves some of our more common distractions and learn to be alone, and to fall in love once again, with our Bridegroom.