The origin story for Lent, one might say, is Jesus’ venture into the wilderness for forty days.
That image rolls off our tongues and out of our sermons as though we know what happened is described by only eleven verses in Matthew’s gospel and thirteen in Luke’s. The conversation between Jesus and the tempter can be read in a minute or so. I keep wandering what Jesus did for over a month and, actually, where he was while he was doing it.
The gospel writers, at least in our translations, say John was out in the desert baptizing people–including Jesus–in the Jordan River and that after that Jesus went out into the wilderness to fast and pray and be tempted. In Greek, the word we read as either desert or wilderness is the same. It is less a description of a particular type of terrain as much as an indication of a place that is not really a place in terms of human population or activity. John was outside of town doing his thing and Jesus just moved farther out.
As far as the forty days go, the number is a consistent symbol throughout both Hebrew and Christian scripture that intends to mark a significant period of time or a time when something significant happens. It makes me think of my youth ministry days and some of our long trips. When kids would ask how much farther we had to go, I always answered, “An hour and a half,” as if to say, “It will take as long as it takes.”
Journeys always take longer when don’t know how much farther you have to go.
However long he was gone, he wasn’t counting how many more Sundays until Holy Week began. We are also left to wonder (imagine?) if the temptations were the point of the pilgrimage or an intrusion. Either way, he had to negotiate the terrain around him, whether he stayed along the river or went out into the rockier arid land that rose around it. I wonder if he met people or was alone the whole time. What kind of animals did he encounter? Did he spend his days hiking or swimming or sleeping on the river bank?
Maybe I am taken by the wilderness and Jesus’ time there because landscape is a lively metaphor these days, thanks to some of my reading that talked about grief as terrain rather than process–not something we get through but something we live in and navigate. I am finding the image helpful as a metaphor for depression as well because it is the land I live in. I hesitate to say that because I feel like I have talked a lot about my depression lately, but it is the land in which I am living these days and I find the best way to remind myself that the terrain is not uninhabited is to speak up and hope for some response from others who live here as well.
Years ago, Ginger and I were driving from El Paso to Big Bend National Park in Southwest Texas. On that stretch of I-10 the exits are literally sixty miles apart. The landscape is a mixture of mountains and deserts and forests and wild life. As we passed one of the signs telling us we had an hour to go until the next exit, I said, “This is beautiful.” At the same time, Ginger said, “There is nothing out here.” Both things were true.
The landscape of life feels a lot like I-10 these days.
Perhaps that is why I am intrigued with how Jesus spent his time in the wilderness. He was out there long enough to come to a place where he had to stare down who he was for however long it took. And the questions he faced out there stayed with him the rest of his life. They weren’t one offs.
So I come back to my Lenten Journal–a day late–to see what I have to learn from the landscape this year. As I was preparing to write, I found this song by Bruce Cockburn that was new to me, “Forty Years in the Wilderness.” The chorus says,
take up your load
run south to the road
turn to the setting sun
sun going down
got to cover some ground
before everything comes undone
A good word. It will take as long as it takes.