In Luke 4:1-13 we encounter Jesus in the desert. In scriptural imagery, the desert is a place of anguish, of searching, and of purification. Just prior to this scene in the gospel of Luke, Jesus was baptized by John. Through the baptism Jesus experienced the profound affirmation of God's love for him. No doubt, at that moment life had a certain clarity and peace for him. However, now life is not so clear. He is led by the Spirit into the desert, on a journey into the unknown. It is clear that this journey was not a walk in the park! It was a process of deep inner suffering, one in which he was tempted to call into question who he was, what he valued and what he believed. He is led into situations where the very foundation of his sense of himself and his understanding of life are tested. He is led through a process of anguished searching. And, through these trials, over time, he comes to a deeper understanding of God, and his relationship with God. In time, he experiences consolation, purification, and enlightenment.
The text states that in the desert Jesus was tempted by bread, the crown and the temple. On one level each of these can be thought of as symbolizing something different: bread is an economic symbol; the crown is a political symbol; and the temple is a religious symbol. He was tempted to seek economic security, political power and religious fame (i.e., the pride of being 'uniquely special' in the eyes of others) rather than trust in his experience of the love of his God. On another level, we can think of each of these temptations as a gradually deeper search, a more intense purification, each prompted by and accompanied by suffering. Jesus is led through a series of purifications, and led to an ever deeper level of radical trust and faith. In either case, the implications for us are similar.
Have you ever felt that you were in the desert, emotionally or spiritually? Have you ever been beaten down by the fragility, unpredictability and injustices of life? Have you ever felt the deep anguish of being uncertain of what you believe and value, who you trust, and what your life is all about? I have. None of us, I suspect, are immune; while each has their unique circumstances, we all struggle with the imperfections of ourselves and others, and with the contradictions and uncertainties of life. In time, these experiences drive one (oft times despite our resistance) to the very core of our life: our raw emotion, our deepest sense of self, our most passionate desires and hopes for life (both realized and
shattered). Perhaps you have felt that way recently; perhaps you feel that way now; perhaps you will feel that way at some point in the future. In these desert places we can be shaken to our foundations; values that once seemed clear now seem vague and uncertain; relationships that once seemed stable and reliable now seem shaky; love that once seemed certain now seems fragile.
At these times I find it helpful to remember and reflect on the experiences of Jesus as handed down to us through the scriptures. Like us, he is led into situations of deep anguish and suffering; he is led through intense and painful processes of doubt, of questioning and of searching; he is victimized by injustice. And, one way or another he is, in time, able to reaffirm a life centered in trust that God's love will sustain him; he is able, in time, to reaffirm a life centered in community; and he is able, in time, to reaffirm that suffering is and can be redemptive, because it was redemptive in his experience. In the end, it is through this process of anguish, doubt, questioning, and reaffirmation that he is able to say, as he hangs on the cross, 'forgive them, Father, for they do not know what they are doing.'
May this Lenten season be a time for us to more deeply pattern our experiences — our anguish, our contradictions, our victimization and our sufferings — after the experiences of Jesus. May this be a graced time for us, when we are more fully able to embrace our doubts, our fears, and our shame, and like Jesus, discover that at the bottom of the anguish awaits the mystery that we name God.