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Angels in the Desert
by Stephen Bevans, SVD | February 24, 2012
Scripture Reflection for the First Sunday of Lent (February 26, 2012)
Psalm 25: 4-5, 6-7, 8-9
1 Peter 3: 18-22
Deserts can be pretty scary places. No water. No food. No shade. Freezing cold at night. Blazing heat during the day. Easy to lose your way. And yet, in our Christian tradition deserts are places where people experience God’s presence and power. Speaking through the prophet Hosea, likening Israel to a spouse, God says that “I will lead her into the desert, and speak to her heart” (Hos 2:16) and in the desert God will be reconciled with Israel. It is into the desert, says the prophet Ezekiel, where God will lead Israel and judge it, just like Israel’s ancestors were led into the desert when they escaped from Egypt (Ez 20:35-36). And, God says, “thus you shall know that I am the LORD” (Ez 20:38). Elijah, too, met God in the desert, in a cave on Mt. Horeb (1Kings 19:9-13). In the time of the early Christian Church, women and men like Antony of Egypt and Synlectica fled to the desert for solitude, prayer, and fasting, and Christians flocked to them, either for spiritual advice or to join them in their ascetical life. Famous monasteries, like that of the monastery of St. Catherine in the desert of Sinai or the monastery on the island of Mt. Athos, are still places where Christians seek and find the presence of God.
Today, on the First Sunday of Lent, we read in the gospel how Jesus was driven by the Spirit, after his Baptism, into the desert—no doubt to sort out this powerful, perhaps unexpected, experience. He stayed there for forty days, “forty” being a “code word” in the Bible for a considerable time. We can recall as we read the first reading today that Noah and his family escaped the flood when it rained forty days and forty nights. Israel was in the desert for forty years—an unimaginable long time! Elijah, before he encountered God at Horeb, arrived there after a journey of “forty days and forty nights” (1Kings 19:8). Luke in the Acts of the Apostles teaches that after his resurrection, Jesus appeared to his disciples for forty days before being taken up into heaven (Acts 1:3).
The season of Lent, which we began last Ash Wednesday, also lasts forty days, and so it makes sense to think of it as spending these forty days, like Jesus, in the desert. It is not a desert wasteland, with extreme heat and cold, that we are called to enter, but a desert of discipline, guided by thinking more about others (traditionally: almsgiving), opening ourselves up to God’s love and grace (prayer), and limiting ourselves a bit against our wants (fasting).
Like Jesus, too, entering into this desert might well place us “among the wild beasts.” When we are serious about disciplining ourselves these “beasts” appear—our selfishness, our lack of commitment, our indifference to the suffering of others, our own strong appetites for physical pleasures, stuff, and recognition.
But like Jesus as well, when we are in the desert we have angels who minister to us. God’s Word, as we read it every day or when we can, is a real angel—a messenger—of God’s support and acceptance. Our friends—those at home, and those who are an e-mail away whom we have gotten to know through Catholics on Call, are also messengers and guardians who can keep us on track. The church’s sacraments—especially Eucharist and Reconciliation—can be angels that nourish us and console us. The saints—maybe our grandmothers, maybe our deceased relatives or friends, maybe holy people like Martin Luther King, or Oscar Romero, or Mother Teresa, or John Paul II, or Jesus’ mother Mary—will pray with us and come to our aid.
Deserts are scary, and to be in the desert of Lent for forty days is not going to be fun. But the angels will be there, and most importantly, so will Jesus. And if we rely on him we will go through death and arrive at new life. His time in the desert helped Jesus in his discernment. Our time in the desert with Jesus will surely help us too.
Stephen Bevans, SVD
Steve Bevans is Professor Emeritus at Catholic Theological Union and the Faculty Moderator for Catholics on Call. He is a Roman Catholic priest in the Society of the Divine Word, an international missionary congregation, and served for nine years (1972-1981) as a missionary in the Philippines.
His publications include: Models of Contextual Theology (2002), Constants in Context: A Theology of Mission for Today (2004, with Roger Schroeder), Evangelization and Freedom (2009, with Jeffrey Gros), and Introduction to Theology in Global Perspective (2009).
He is past president of the American Society of Missiology (2006) and past member of the board of directors of the Catholic Theological Society of America (2007-2009). In 2009 he was visiting lecturer at Yarra Theological Union in Melbourne, Australia, and in 2013 he was the only Catholic to speak at a Plenary at the Tenth Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Busan, Korea.