Let us reflect a little on what is meant by “the desert.”
First, the desert is the place of silence, of solitude. It is the absence of the exchanges of daily life, its noise and its superficiality. The desert is the place of the absolute, the place of freedom, which sets man before the ultimate demands. Not by chance is the desert the place where monotheism began. In that sense it is a place of grace. In putting aside all preoccupations man encounters his Creator.
Great things have their beginnings in the desert, in silence, in poverty. It is not possible to share in the mission of Jesus, in the mission of the Gospel, without sharing in the desert experience, its poverty, its hunger. That beautiful hunger for justice of which the lord speaks in the Sermon on the Mount cannot be born in the fullness of satiety...And let us not forget that for Jesus the desert did not end with those forty days. His final, extreme, desert was to be that of Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” And from that desert sprang up the waters of the life of the world.
Second, the desert is also the place of death: there is no water there, the basic element for life. And so this place, with its harsh burning light, appears to be the extreme opposite of life, a dangerous threatening waste. In the Old Testament, silence is an element of death; man as a person lives by love, lives by relationships, and precisely thus is in the image of the Trinitarian God, whose persons are relations subsistenses, a pure act of the loving relationship of love.
Next the desert is not only the region which threatens biological life, it is also the place of temptation, the place where the power of the devil is manifested, the “murderer from the beginning” (John 8:44). Entering into the desert, Jesus exposes himself to this power, opposes himself to this power, continues the action of his baptism, the action of the Incarnation, descending not only into the depths of the waters of the Jordan, but descending moreover into the depths of human misery — as far as the region of broken love, of destroyed relationships, in that solitude to be found throughout the world marked by sin. A theologian of the fifth century said Jesus descended into hell when he went before Caiaphas...How many times does Jesus not go before Caiaphas — still today! And so we may meditate on what it means to “follow Jesus.”
On the other hand this descent of Jesus into solitude expresses the infinite love of God and confirms the marvelous words of Psalm 139, “If I ascend to the heaven, thou art there; if I make my bed in Sheol, thou art there” (v. 8).
Finally, by entering into the desert, Jesus enters also into the history of the salvation of his people, the chosen people. This history begins with the going out from Egypt, with the forty years of wandering in the desert; at the heart of these forty years we find the forty days of Moses on the mount, the days of being face-to-face with God, days of absolute fast, days away from his people in the solitude of the cloud, on the top of the mountain; from these days flows the fountain of revelation. Again, we find the forty days in the life of Elijah who — persecuted by King Ahab — went forty days’ journey into the desert, so returning to the starting point of the covenant, to God’s voice speaking and a new beginning in the history of salvation.
Jesus enters into this history, into the temptations of his people, into the temptations of Moses, even as Moses offered the sacred exchange: to be blotted out of the book of life for the salvation for the salvation of his people. So Jesus will be the Lamb of God, who carries the sins of the world, the true Moses, who is truly “in the bosom of the Father,” face-to-face with him and revealing him. He is truly the fountain of living water in the desert of the world, he who not only speaks but is the word of life: way, truth, and life. From on high on the Cross he gives us the new covenant. The true Moses, at the Resurrection he enters into the Promised Land, closed to Moses, and with the key of the Cross opens to us the gateway to that Promised Land.
So Jesus sums up the whole history of Israel. This history of his history: Moses and Elijah not only speak to him but of him. To be converted to the Lord is also to enter into the history of salvation, returning with Jesus to the beginnings on Sinai, taking part in the journeys of Moses and of Elijah, which is the road to God and to Jesus, as Gregory of Nyssa has described it in his Ascent of Moses.
Another element seems to me important, however. Jesus goes into the desert to be tempted, to share in the temptations of his people and of the world, to bear our misery, to conquer the foe and so to open the way for us to the Promised Land. It seems to me that all of this belongs in a particular manner to the office of the priest: to be exposed in the front line to the temptations and necessities of any given time, to suffer the sufferings of faith at a given time with others and for others. If at a certain period philosophy, science, political power create obstacles to the faith, it is to be expected that priests and religious should feel it even before lay folk. In the firmness and the suffering of their own faith and their own prayer they ought to construct the way of the lord in the new desert of history. The journeys of Moses and Elijah are always being repeated, and so human life always enters anew the unique way and the unique history of the Lord Jesus.
Monday, February 11, 2008
With Christ in the desert
~from Pope Benedict's Journey to Easter