In the early 4th century, as the persecution of the Church came to a close, the Emperor Constantine made Christianity legal. Yet, it did not mean that there wasn’t darkness, sin, temptation, vice and so on. Christianity, however, was no longer the enemy of the world. Therefore, figures like St. Anthony – not the finder of lost things, the Abbot Marcarius and others fled to the desert in an attempt to flee worldly temptations and conformity with darkness. It was a complete and total abandonment to God, a total trust in His providence … a turn toward Him with one’s whole life.
Interestingly enough, Jesus, empowered by the Holy Spirit, goes out into the desert Himself. In biblical language the desert is a dangerous place. It is the realm of evil powers symbolized by the wild beasts that lurk there. Jesus enters the desert not to flee temptation and conformity with the world but do battle with it. Jesus goes to the desert to pick a fight with man’s most dangerous adversary – Satan. For Jesus, it is a time of testing that precedes His mission.
That what these 40 days symbolize for us, a time of testing … this is what the #40 symbolizes – just like the Israelites in the desert, like Moses on Mt. Sinai, Jesus in the desert, and for us during the Season of Lent … we are in test mode. Hence, at the onset of Jesus’ ministry He says: repent and believe. ‘Repent’ – to feel remorse for wrongdoing, regret … but the Greek term in Mark is metanoia … it implies a conversion … an interior change of form or character that looks away from the lure of temptation, of the glamour of the world and sees more clearly, with a fixed and focused attention on the goodness, compassion, mercy and generosity of God …It is a turn … a turn away from distractions of life and the world and it looks to a deeper faith. This is precisely why those early Christians who fled to desert offer such profound spiritual wisdom – because they turned to Jesus completely… they said no to conformity with the world and yes to faith, conformity with Christ.
It isn’t just Lent that is a time of testing but the whole of life – this is what is symbolized in Jesus’ battle with Satan in the desert … Satan is the adversary, Christ is our great defender. Further, this is why the practices of the Lenten Season – and indeed the practice of our faith – mean something to us … these are our weapons we use to fight evil, temptation… the adversary. Why do we neglect them? Why do we so often shrug them off as unnecessary? Do to so, is to give in and to give up. Therefore we must find the desert in our busy lives… the place, the practice, the discipline that allows us to turn to God, to let go of pride, our ego, our false sense of self-preservation and the lure of the world and … repent … to deliberately make a conscious choice and effort to turn our gaze to Him … This is what makes the practices of Lent so fruitful because they bring about an interior change in form and character that more closely unites us to the goodness and mercy of God …