“For example, God says, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all our might’ (Deut. 6:5); yet how much have the fathers said and written – and still say and write – without equaling what is contained in that single phrase? For, as St. Basil the Great has said, to love God with all our soul means to love nothing together with God; for if someone loves his own soul, he loves God, not with all his soul, but only partially; and if we love ourselves and innumerable other things as well, how can we love God or dare to claim that we love Him? It is the same with the love of one’s neighbor. If we are not willing to sacrifice this temporal life, or perhaps even the life to come, for the sake of our neighbor, as were Moses and St. Paul, how can we say that we love him? For Moses said to God concerning his people, ‘If Thou wilt forgive their sins, forgive; but if not, blot me as well out of the book of life which Thou hast written’ (exod. 32:32); while St. Paul said, ‘For I could wish that I myself were severed from Christ for the sake of my brethren’ (Rom. 9:3). He prayed, that is to say, that he should perish in order that others might be saved – and those others were the Israelites who were seeking to kill him.”
“Following the example of Christ, humility is the distinguishing characteristic of the Christian life, and the foundation for our relation with God. The more humble we are, the more God will reveal Himself to us. And the more we know about God, the more humble we become. We need all the virtues, but without humility they achieve nothing. Even fasting, prayer, and love itself can do nothing without humility. But when prayer and fasting are joined with humility, we become the companion of God, and enter the divine environment in such a way that, as we’ve said, we become gods ourselves.” (Archimandrite Aimilianos, The Way of the Spirit, p. 313)
“When Abba Macarius was returning from the marsh to his cell one day carrying some palm-leaves, he met the devil on the road with a scythe. The [devil] struck at him as much as he pleased, but in vain, and said to him, ‘What is your power, Macarius, that makes me powerless against you? All that you do, I do, too; you fast, so do I; you keep vigil, and I do not sleep at all; in one thing only do you beat me.’ Abba Macarius asked what that was. He said, ‘Your humility. Because of that, I can do nothing against you.’”(Apoth., Macarius 11, p.130)
“But now when God is seen in the flesh conversing with men, I make an image of the God whom I see. I do not worship matter; I worship the Creator of matter who became matter for my sake, who willed to take his abode in matter; who worked out my salvation through matter. Never will I cease honoring the matter that wrought my salvation.”
This glory of the body, however, does not belong only to the End but is foreshadowed at various moments throughout salvation history. Before the fall the bodies of Adam and Eve shone with light in Paradise , and they were “covered with God’s glory in place of clothing” (Homilies 12:8).
Once they had fallen into sin, this robe of glory was taken away from them and they were left naked (cf. Genesis 3:7). Then at Moses’ descent from Mount Sinai, after the giving of the Law, the final restoration of our bodily glory was briefly anticipated when his face shone so brightly that he had to cover it with a veil (cf. Exodus 34:29–35): “He went up as a mere man; he descended, carrying God with him….The Word of God was his food and he had a glory shining on his countenance” (H. 12:14). A far more significant foretaste of the eschatological glory came at Christ’s own transfiguration: “As the body of the Lord was glorified when he climbed the mount and was transfigured into the divine glory and into infinite light, so also the bodies of the saints are glorified and shine like lightning” (H. 15:38). What happened then to the Savior will happen to all true Christians in the age to come.
In so far as anyone, through faith and zeal, has been deemed worthy to receive the Holy Spirit, to that degree his body also will be glorified in that day. What the soul now stores up within shall then be revealed as a treasure and displayed externally in the body…. The glory of the Holy Spirit rises up from within, covering and warming the bodies of the saints. This is the glory they interiorly had before, hidden in their souls. For what they now have, that same then pours out externally into the body (H. 5:8–9).
(Kallistos Ware, from Pseudo-Macarius: The Fifty Spiritual Homilies and the Great Letter, p. XVI-XV)
“Because the coming redemption of men and women is the defining feature of the Lenten season, the elaboration of the sin of Adam and Eve is never meant to lead to despair. Quite the opposite; it underscores the audacious mercy shown toward mankind. In light of Christ, the sin of Adam leads to exaltation, not condemnation. Another key concept to bear in mind is that crucifixion is not a one-time event limited to the figure of Jesus of Nazareth; in the liturgy of Easter, it is continually reappropriated in the life of the Church.
Paul says that baptism is our participation in the glory of the cross, gloria crucis – ‘Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism unto death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead…so we too might walk in newness of life’ (Rom. 6:3-4).” (Gary A. Anderson, In Dominico Eloquio – In Lordly Eloquence, pp. 29-30)
What exactly does forgiveness look like? There is no doubt that a lot depends on the people involved both the one forgiving and for the one being forgiven. I don’t think there is any one result that happens. A friend recently told me this story:
He had done something that deeply offended a dear friend, making a serious accusation against his friend that turned out not to be true. His friend walked away from him in disgust and anger.
When he realized that he had been wrong in what he had thought and said, he went to his friend and admitted he was wrong, asking for forgiveness. His friend told him that he forgave him, but never renewed the friendship. This man told me he pondered that for years thinking his friend never really forgave him, for if he had really forgiven him, the friendship would have continued on as before.
After many years, he said he came to realize that though his friend had forgiven him, his friend still held him accountable for what he had done. He said he had imagined wrongly that forgiveness was like a free pass – if you forgive me, you can’t hold me accountable for what I’ve done. But he said he realized his friend held him to a high standard of friendship – as friends we are accountable to one another, and we should not let friends off the hook too easily if we really value the other person and want them also to learn and grow in wisdom. We should never let someone off the hook if that only will enable them to continue to commit the same fault – for if they are really a friend they will want to learn and change.
He said he came to realize that in fact in his lifetime he had several times been let off the hook when he had done something that hurt another. He came to realize his friend wanted him to be the best person he possibly could be and that meant he had to learn accountability. A really profound lesson in forgiveness and friendship. He said he came to understand that his own apology was probably more self seeking – he didn’t want to lose his friend – whereas his apology really needed to include taking full responsibility for what he had done.
He had damaged the friendship irreparably and he had to take full responsibility for that. His friend may indeed have forgiven him but that meant he had to share in carrying the burden of the damage. His friend carried his share of the damage and he had to own up to carrying his own share of the damage done.
How many of you like to travel? How many of you find the thought of a great voyage or adventure to be exciting?
How many of you find that however wonderful travel can be it is always great to be back home?
Whether you like to travel, like an adventure, or whether you like getting home, Great Lent is for you. Great Lent is a great spiritual sojourn, a great adventure to the kingdom of heaven, and as it turns out, this heaven to which we are sojourning is also our home!
The Christian sojourn is not traveling to a far-off foreign country, but instead it is a journey to the home God created for us from the beginning. Today in the Church we also remember the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise. Paradise was the place God created to be our home, but we no longer live in Paradise. This is reality. The Scriptures tell us of why Adam and Eve had to leave their home in Paradise, they were expelled from the home God made for them and us because of their own rebellious sin.
Adam ate the forbidden fruit and was driven from Paradise.
He sat outside, weeping bitterly:
“Woe to me! What will become of me, a worthless man?
I disobeyed one command of my Master and lost every good thing!
O holy Paradise, planted for me by God, and closed by the weakness of
grant that I may once again gaze on the flowers of your gardens!”
The Savior said to him:
“I do not wish the death of my creation!
I desire that all should be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth,
for him who comes to me I shall never cast out!”
Adam and Eve lost not only their home but also lost their way home. And in them, so did we all. They couldn’t get back to that home they had lost. But Christianity says there is a way home. So in another hymn from Vespers we sing:
O Paradise, garden of delight and beauty,
dwelling-place made perfect by God,
unending gladness and eternal joy,
the hope of the prophets and the home of the saints,
by the music of your rustling leaves beseech the Creator of all
to open the gates which my sins have closed,
that I may partake of the Tree of Life and Grace
which was given to me in the beginning!
Even the leaves in paradise when they rustle create music which calls to us to return. And when we think about this beautiful paradise we should feel homesick because this world is full of problems – violence, disease, war, pain, sorrow, addiction, emotional illness, shattered marriages, dysfunctional families. Something is wrong in this world and with this world. Sin has shattered our lives. We have lost touch with God.
Yet, the fact that we can recognize there is a problem gives us hope. We don’t find ultimate purpose of life in this world, but it is available to us in the life in the world to come. We can believe there is purpose and meaning to life despite the sorrows and problems of this world because we understand this world is only a small part of the totality of creation, and life here is a tiny portion of the big history or creation. We can believe that there is a better way, and trust that there is a God to help us. Thus we can be full of hope.
Many years ago I read a book called Emotions Anonymous In which a physician wrote these words:
“As a doctor it took me a long time to find that actually relieving pain is not my goal. I found that behind all the suffering, pain, diseases, and all the conditions that cause dis-ease, lie the thirst and the hunger of the human being for spirituality.
This hunger and thirst is the aspiration of a human being to be a whole again.” (p 18)
This physician was describing what we Orthodox have known for centuries. He went on to say about this world:
We want to have no conflict, but we still have conflict.
We want life to be perfect here and now but it is far from perfect.
We want to have constant pleasure but we have pain.
We so want to succeed in every effort we make that when we fail in one area we reject not only our actions but ourselves as well.
We become very fearful.
We try to impress other people by being something we are not, by being phony.
We find ourselves being resentful toward people and life.
We become experts as manipulating people.
We become very self-centered.” (Emotions Anonymous, p 29)
In so many ways he is describing the same things we read in the Scriptures about the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise and why we struggle on earth with pain and sorrow. He is describing the descent into sin and a world which is broken.
And when we allow ourselves to truly look at this world, we realize all of the things of this earth not only are intermixed with pain and sorrow but they also are transient, all is passing away.
And so we can think about Christ’s words: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be.” Our treasure should be our true home that Kingdom of God which is true, permanent and eternal, rather than being the things of this world which are intermixed with grief and pain. We should prefer the eternal and everlasting Kingdom to the temporary and transient things of this world which in any case will all pass away.
Great Lent calls us to look for the eternal even though we live in the temporal world. Great Lent reminds us that we really do love these temporary things of this world – our favorite foods, the comforts of home, being entertained, the abundance of the earth. But all we need to do is look around and realize we continue to age, we really are sojourners on this planet and are here only a short time. Not only are our lives on earth temporary, but everything we so love on earth will pass away as well.
And as we think about all of this we come to the words of the Prophet Hosea in which God himself musing about his own love for Israel says: “Therefore, behold, I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her.” (Hosea 2:14)
God in His love for His people calls us into the wilderness, into the desert to find Him and to find our way home. Great Lent is a sojourn, it is the journey into the desert where we find God’s love and our way home to God. We experience in Lent some discomfort, some self-denial, to awaken in ourselves the knowledge that we are not in our permanent home but are just passing through this life on the way to our home. Fasting is a spiritual discipline to help us put this world and our lives into a proper framework so that we can seek that which is eternal as well as that which is our true home.
When we think about fasting, we also have to consider that before teaching us about fasting, Jesus spoke first about forgiveness as we see in today’s Gospel.
For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly. Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matthew 6:14-21)
In the Gospel, Christ teaches us first about forgiving and then fasting. Before we begin the fast we are to forgive. We cannot pursue the heights of spirituality without first ridding ourselves of the depth of anger and resentment by forgiving one another.
St Gregory the Great said even sinners and demons can perform spectacular miracles (Pharaoh’s magicians for example did). St Gregory says forgiving is an even a greater miracle than healing the sick, and every Christian is capable of performing the miracle of forgiveness. Demons and sinners are not able to perform the miracle of forgiveness. Perform a miracle today, forgive someone who has offended you or who owes you or against whom you have a grudge.
You are God’s servant, does it serve God for you to hold on to a grudge, a hurt, the anger, the resentment?
The journey we are about to undertake is a spiritual sojourn, and the desert through which we must traverse turns out to be our own hearts which have become hardened, barren and arid by our experiences in this world. But now we are being called by God to turn away from the world and to come into the desert to meet Him, to turn our hearts into the very place where we will meet God face to face. The experience of God awaits us if we will undertake the journey.
We are preparing ourselves to commemorate the Resurrection of our Lord, not as past history, but as our own experience, our history, Christ is risen from the dead, not Christ was risen. We celebrate this yearly because it is our personal experience, and our community’s experience, not just something that happened to people long ago. We are to enter into that experience and make it our own. I do this because of what the Lord has done for me. God has blessed us in this world and invites us into that blessed life in the world to come. Are you ready to make this sojourn home?
For the peace from above and for the salvation of our souls, let us pray to the Lord.
Jesus answered: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” (John 3:3)
Jesus speaks to us about being ‘born again’ or ‘born from above’ – which Orthodoxy has understood as the spiritual and heavenly birth given us in baptism. The phrase “from above” does occur at various times in Orthodox liturgical prayers as in the petition of the litany listed above. We come to experience the forgiveness we offer to others as the peace from above. St. Isaac of Nineveh writes:
Consider the forgiveness of your debtors in these things as a work of righteousness. Then you will see peace exult in your mind from two sides: namely when you are above propriety and justice in your way, and you yield to freedom in all things. (On Ascetical Life, p. 65)
For St Isaac when someone decides to forgive, they decide that mercy trumps judgment (James 2:13). In forgiveness, we decide to forego retribution, justice or even validation for one’s hurt because of the offense. You choose freedom from the demands of justice.
Forgiveness Sunday is our time to choose the peace from above, to let go the demands of justice and validation and to love another as God loves us. We enter into Great Lent with the intention to live the Gospel. “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14). We offer to others what we want from God.
The second theme, that of forgiveness, is emphasized in the Gospel reading for this Sunday (Matthew 6:14-21) and in the special ceremony of mutual forgiveness at the end of Vespers on Sunday evening. Before we enter the Lenten fast, we are reminded that there can be no true fast, no genuine repentance, no reconciliation with God, unless we are at the same time reconciled with one another. A fast without mutual love is the fast of demons. As the commemoration of the ascetic saints on the previous Saturday has just made clear to us, we do not travel the road of Lent as isolated individuals but as members of a family. Our asceticism and fasting should not separate us from our fellow men but link us to them with ever stronger bonds. The Lenten ascetic is called to be a man for others. (The Lenten Triodion, p. 47)
This is the second and concluding post based upon my reading of John McGuckin’s “The Christian Sense of the Desert” in his book Illumined by the Spirit, The first post is Great Lent: Journeying into the Heart of the Desert. The Egyptians understood the desert to be the haunt of demons, especially the evil god Set who brought chaos and destruction to all. They had a great civilization built right up to the border of the desert, but they needed to keep the desert at bey for when the desert moves into the farms and settlements, destruction follows – famine and the towns and farms succumb and become wastelands.
And yet, God called Israel into the desert so that they might see His glory and His face. Christians in turn have seen the desert as “the zone of pilgrimage to the promised land” in McGuckin’s words. We have treated Great lent as that desert zone of pilgrimage which we all can enter so that we can move toward the Kingdom of God. As the Prophet Hosea (2:14) said God allures Israel and us into the desert, not out of it. The desert is a temporary place for us, but an essential part of the sojourn. It is like a bridge we need to get from one place to another. Nobody lives on the bridge but the bridge is essential to all of our lives.
Great Lent as the desert brings us face to face with our own demons. We fast a little and become irritable. Our desires increase, we dismiss self-denial as legalistic. We crave what we want and can see no connection between our lives, our desires, what we indulgence and the Lord God. We come to act as if God was not Lord of the desert – of Great Lent and of my hungering heart – that God is only Lord of my prosperity, of my self-indulgence, of my abundance, of my over consumption. We imagine if we are experiencing the slightest need, then God isn’t there. We act as if God isn’t Lord over everything when we imagine God is only present in times of abundance but not in times of abstinence, self-denial and endurance. And yet the Church’s history and experience is that fasting and self-denial bring us closer to God. The full belly doesn’t cause us to thank God, but to forget God and be contented with the world.
Israel in the Old Testament is not leaving slavery in Egypt for a vacation in a warm climate. They are not even guaranteed a better life by leaving the grand civilization of Egypt for desert wasteland – there isn’t even water in the desert, let alone farms and orchards. They may be slaves in Egypt but they are alive, while the desert means death. They know they are heading into hostile territory, into Set’s domain. Though they have witnessed the destruction of Egypt, they understand they are walking into certain death in the desert. It was there they also would see the glory of the Lord (Exodus 16:7, 10) – strangely, the two go together – facing death and seeing God. In the desert they were totally dependent on the Lord, for the wilderness has little or nothing to give them.
The mystery and the miracle of the desert is that it reveals both the glory of the Lord and also Israel’s own heart. It reveals God’s heart for Israel and where Israel’s heart is. Where your treasure is there will your heart be also (Luke 12:34). As McGuckin writes:
“The desert’s evil, nevertheless, comes out in the manner in which the account of Israel’s wandering stresses the regular failures of the people of Israel to live up to the covenant demands.
The divine call to the desert first comes from God to Israel. They are to withdraw from the fleshpots of Egypt and find themselves once more as the covenant people by sacrificing to their God in the wilderness:
You and the elders of Israel shall go to the king of Egypt and say to him, ‘The LORD, the God of the Hebrews, has met with us; and now, we pray you, let us go a three days’ journey into the wilderness, that we may sacrifice to the LORD our God.’ (Exodus 3:18)
The desert is the place where the glory of the Lord, the Shekinah, appears to his chosen people:
And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the people of Israel, they looked toward the wilderness, and behold, the glory of the LORD appeared in the cloud. (Exodus 16:10)
The wilderness is the place where God himself cares for his needy people:
I have led you forty years in the wilderness; yet your clothes have not worn out upon you, and your sandals have not worn off your feet; you have not eaten bread, and you have not drunk wine or strong drink; that you may know that I am the LORD your God. (Deuteronomy 29:5-6)
And he provides them with manna from heaven: a symbol of provident care that comes once again to the fore in the Christian narratives of eucharistic spirituality (John 6:30-35). …
In the Deuteronomic re-expression of the covenant theology, the wilderness is thus abstracted as God’s time of watching for the veracity of Israel’s faithfulness:
And you shall remember all the way which the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments, or not. (Deuteronomy 8:2)
Isaiah elevates the desert symbol as a sign of covenant renewal – when the wilderness shall flow with water again (as once it did from the rock); and this became a sign of hope that was specifically used by Jesus himself to describe the days of divine visitation as refreshment and new life:
Be strong, fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you. Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a hart, and the tongue of the dumb sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes. And a highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not pass over it, and fools shall not err therein. (Isaiah 35:4-8)” (pp 126-128)
Great Lent can be the time and place where we learn to live by the Word of God. We learn that we do experience hunger and want and need and yet God is the Lord even in these times. We depend on God and God gets us through the desert by being with us. The small inconveniences we experience as Lent, the hunger, the want, the need, all become transformed into our experience of God. We learn to hunger and thirst for God, we learn how to say no to sin and sinful desire.
Great Lent as desert is also when and where we are enabled to see God’s glory and to enter into it. For in the “desert” we are not distracted by the things of this world – the gadgets, the gourmet, the grand, the gawdy – and so we can see the glory of God.
“…the desert remains in Israelite thought and experience a place where sin and evil are strong.” (p 128)
The desert it turns out to be the gateway to Paradise and the desert and the door to Paradise are both found in our hearts, which is why Great Lent is a sojourn through the heart of the desert and the desert of the heart.
Jesus says: “In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)
For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. (2 Corinthians 4:6)
When I read John McGuckin’s chapter, “The Christian Sense of the Desert,” in his book Illumined by the Spirit, I immediately saw its connection to Great Lent and also how the desert experience is a description of Great Lent. It helps contextualize what we are called to experience in our Lenten sojourn. We come to realize one way to understand the fasting, abstinence and self-denial – it is our own spiritual walk into the desert, related to what Israel undertook when God called Israel out of Egypt and into the desert where they would see God’s face and glory as well as look into the face of death.
The article begins with a poem by Edward Dorn:
’The first law of the desert
to which animal life of every kind
is endurance and abstinence.’
Endurance and abstinence – two very apt descriptions for what we experience on our Lenten sojourn. Even if we only keep Great Lent minimally, we do experience its length and have to endure. And if we keep any kind of fasting – whether from food, entertainment, sex, the internet – we are practicing abstinence from some things. We come to realize that Great Lent takes us out into the desert and says, “your survival is dependent on your willingness to deny yourself.” If you feel you have to indulge yourself, you won’t survive in the desert. As modern people we may abandon the desert, the fast, but in doing that we learn how much we really love the world rather than God. We find that we don’t even want to rely on God or to live on the Word of God, we really want to have the things of the world that we crave rather than the Creator of this world. And we see this in the smallest of things – a piece of cheese, a hamburger, a little downtime in front of the TV or the computer. “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world— the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life —is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever” (1 John 2:15-17).
McGuckin goes on to write:
“The ancient world generally saw the desert as a cursed place. Its barrenness, its stark and unremitting hostility to all life forms, especially human, was a primal symbol of the fearsome anger and power of God who seemed to have withdrawn the vitality of life from such a place even as he had withdrawn water, that deep symbol of the graciousness of the Holy Spirit. Christians, reflecting on the Scriptures, saw the desert in a symbolically different way as the quintessential zone of pilgrimage to the promised land, and gave it a new significance: comparable to the reference to the wilderness in the prophet Hosea, who called to the Israelites of his time to return to the Lord God with love and zeal, citing the desert years of wandering as a time when Israel still felt like a lover in the presence of God, before faithlessness and tedium had turned the marital relationship sour.
Hosea’s text, though not often cited explicitly in the early Church, in many ways sums up the special Christian sensibility of what would develop as ‘desert spirituality’ – characterized by an energy of repentance, a turning back (Heb: shub, Gk: metanoia), a return to simplicity which casts off distractions, in order to rediscover the heart of one’s relationship with God. Hosea puts this call to repentance into the mouth of God himself musing about his love affair with Israel and his plans to revive it:
“Therefore, behold, I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her. And there I will give her her vineyards, and make the Valley of Achor a door of hope. And there she shall answer as in the days of her youth, as at the time when she came out of the land of Egypt. “And in that day, says the LORD, you will call me, ‘My husband,’ and no longer will you call me, ‘My Baal.’ (Hosea 2:14-16)
This movement towards the desert not so much as a holy place, but more as the symbol of a return to a holy state, especially took hold among Christians…” (pp 123-124)
The desert – that place where you have to practice self-denial, abstinence and endurance just to survive – became for us a symbol of the sojourn to the Kingdom. However hard it may be, the journey is a blessed one because it does bring us to our destination – to Paradise, to the Kingdom of Heaven. And as God called Israel to the desert out of slavery to the great civilization of Egypt, so God calls us to Great Lent out of the civilized world, to that spiritual desert where we are not distracted by all the alluring things of the world and can concentrate on seeing God. In the desert we realize the need for God’s love and presence, we realize our survival depends upon God. We embrace the God of love, we pry ourselves away from the things that God has made so that we can fully embrace the Giver of the gifts. The absence of creaturely comforts reminds us there is a Creator of comforts and this God is far more important to us than all the things of the world. In going to the spiritual desert we acknowledge that we really can live without all of the luxuries of life in the civilized world.
Great Lent like the desert is “the quintessential zone of pilgrimage to the promised land.” The foods we eat during Great Lent remind us we are on a sojourn, and this world is a desert. The Israelites did not have wine in the desert because they had no time or place to establish vineyards. They were on the move, as we should be in our Lenten sojourn. They had no olive oil because they had no groves of olive trees in the desert and no means to press the olives to extract the oil. Wine and oil require the luxury of permanence, of being able to cultivate vineyards and orchards and of being able to process the produce from grapes to wine and from olives to oil. The fast is a harsh reminder of our reality – we are sojourners on earth. Yet, we come to realize how much we really love the things of this earth – meat, dairy, wine and oil – which we might desire more than we desire God the Giver of every good gift. Denying ourselves these things is to remind us we should desire God even more than we desire the blessings of His earth. We fast in order to experience the desire for these things so that we can then cultivate a desire for God even more than the things of the world that we so love. Fasting isn’t done because the things of the world are evil, but rather because we become addicted to them, treating them as our gods, acting as if we can’t live without them. Great Lent calls us to live for a time period on the Word of God.
Our own sojourn during Great Lent was foreshadowed by Israel’s sojourn through the desert after their escape from slavery in Egypt. Their own willingness to leave Egypt and head into the desert was done in the context of knowing that the desert was not a friendly, welcoming, nurturing place. The Israelites moved into the desert having learned from the Egyptians that the desert was the barren and lifeless wilderness controlled by the god Set. Set is one of the gods of Egypt, an evil one, brother to the god Osiris.
“Egypt is in many ways a seminal matrix for the desert experience. The desert of the Israelites is, of course, this desert, and the ways Egypt regarded it have some continuance in Israelite attitudes… Set, Osiris’ brother, is a force of disorder. He thus represents evil and hostility to humankind. … the evil Set, who is finally ousted from his sterile seizure of power, and exiled to the desert lands… Set, however, remains as a constant threat of disorder, destruction, and death; always prowling in the desert lands, never far away from the centers of civilized life which struggle to retain their fragile dominion over human existence. If an ancient went out into the desert he or she would risk the fearful encounter with daimones, the mid-level spiritual forces, sublunary deities, which the ancient world saw as ubiquitous powers. But in the desert these forces were habitually hostile and destructive: hungry servants of Set. … Set’s rule commenced when arid barrenness began and either killed all living things, or made them wild, murderously savage.
This notion of the fearfulness of the wilderness places forms an important backdrop to the classical appearance of the desert in Israel’s account of the escape from Egypt.” (p 125-126)
Israel walked out of civilized Egypt into Set’s desert. This helps us understand why Pharaoh was incredulous when Aaron and Moses requested permission from him to travel into the desert to worship their God. But Pharaoh said, “Who is the LORD, that I should heed his voice and let Israel go? I do not know the LORD, and moreover I will not let Israel go.“ (Exodus 5:2) Pharaoh knew the desert to be Set’s haunting place, why his slaves would want to leave civilization to honor an evil god was beyond his understanding. What Moses brings into Egypt in the plagues, Pharaoh will understand to be the destructive powers of Set. In the end Pharaoh expels the Israelites from Egypt realizing some divine power is present that he does not understand. Pharaoh sees himself as a god of the civilized world, but his kingdom is in chaos when in the presence of the God of Israel. Pharaoh never understood the Lord God as anything more than some manifestation of Set. And for the Israelites, the Lord God led them right into the haunts of Set, but in that very place the Egyptians did not want to go, God promised to reveal Himself.