Have you been watching the Winter Olympics? The one thing that always impresses me about athletes of that standard is their determination - it is written all over their faces as they throw themselves into their events - their teeth clinched, their eyes steely set on whatever is their sport. As spectators we both expect and admire an athlete’s total commitment.
Athletes aren’t the only people with such determination and focus. Muslims from around the world go to Mecca for the annual pilgrimage called the Haj. If you have ever watched any of the TV coverage of the Haj, you would have seen how profound is the effect on those who commit themselves to make the journey. It is life-changing for them.
Every Muslim’s goal is to be able to save enough so they can go on the Haj at least once in their lifetime. By doing the pilgrimage to Mecca they get in touch with their true self, the self they know that God wants them to be. They experience the infinite being of God by going into the desert and giving up ordinary human comforts. And they return from their pilgrimage wanting to apply the forgiveness they have found, and live more authentically from their true self.
Vital faith, vital participants, exist in sport and in religion. Christians have been known to be vital like that also. As we look on Jesus we see someone who lived a life of complete dedication and vitality. His identification with our humanity is so complete that he even made his own pilgrimage into the desert, to get in touch with his true self.
Mark the gospel writer says Jesus was tempted by Satan in the desert. If you have been able to start our book for Lent, you would have read how in Jesus’ time outside forces they didn’t understand would be called satan or demons. We might say that Jesus allowed himself to get in touch with his inner demons, his motivations. He overcame base motives that would have undermined his messiahship. His desert time clarified his vision for the challenges he would face.
We can go into the desert through our spiritual identification with Jesus. We may never make a physical pilgrimage to some hot and dry place, but we can make the inward journey. We can reflect deeply on what is really important, and look to meet God in a new way.
Christians and non-Christians give up things in Lent, as a way of self-improvement. Doing such things can be very beneficial for our bodies. However, to give up chocolate may not achieve anything of spiritual significance for us, because it doesn’t have a real bite to it. It is just another fad for Lent. It’s got no bite that goes to the core of our being. When Jesus went into the desert he gave up things that really mattered. He showed us how to do a real fast with real spiritual value. He gave up basic comforts like food and a roof over his head.
If we decide to give up something, of course it would have to be in keeping with our situation and our family circumstances. Maybe a couple could sit down together and decide whether the family budget allows for a significant gift to a particular charity. Leftover change won’t do it. With leftover change there isn’t that bite that touches the core of our being. The gift needs to be significant for us, a sacrifice that hurts and points us to trust in God.
Jesus was tempted in the desert. He wasn’t tempted in the way we usually think of temptation. He didn’t hear a little voice saying ‘have a second helping of pudding’ or ‘maybe just one more beer.’ His temptations had to do with his nature, whether he would be true to himself. He reflected on his life’s work, how would he conduct himself, to whom would he listen for basic direction. This is much deeper than any lesson in chocolates. With Jesus as our model, there needs to be a bite to our fasting and a Lent discipline that goes to the core of our being.
We all need a desert from time to time. We rush here and there from one obligation to the next, and then wonder why we never have time for ourselves. I find even in retirement I can always create something else I just have to do. What are we rushing to?
The stillness of the desert is the place of uncompromising self honesty, where our deepest conflicts are likely to come to the surface. But if we can face them, and share them with God, we will emerge as stronger and more integrated people. We will emerge true to our own nature, ready to make a difference in this world, as Jesus did.
Fasting in Lent can be a desert experience. Pope Francis has suggested some ways to fast that go to the core of our being and have some bite to them. Look at the back of your readings sheet:
Fast from hurting words and say kind words.
Fast from sadness and be filled with gratitude.
Fast from anger and be filled with patience.
Fast from pessimism and be filled with hope.
Fast from worries and have trust in God.
Fast from complaints and contemplate simplicity.
Fast from pressures and be prayerful.
Fast from bitterness and fill your hearts with joy.
Fast from selfishness and be compassionate to others.
Fast from grudges and be reconciled.
Fast from words and be silent so you can listen.
As I copied and pasted this list, I felt I could hear an invitation to do at least one of these fasts. Lent is 5 weeks’ long. Somebody has figured out that to learn a new habit, we should do whatever it is for 6 weeks. Then it becomes a habit we keep. Keeping a fast like these could be life-changing. It could be mine a desert experience, which we enter into this Lent with Jesus.