Growing up, I was a big fan of the show M*A*S*H, just like almost everyone else in the country. The final episode of M*A*S*H is still the only drama in the top ten in viewership, along with nine of the last twenty Super Bowls. In one episode that I remember, “the unit’s priest, Fr. Mulcahy, tried to talk with a wounded soldier who had been severely traumatized by what he witnessed on the front lines of the war. But when this soldier discovers that the good Father had never been anywhere close to where the fighting of the war was taking place, he concludes they just cannot talk. The soldier had no interest in hearing the pious platitudes of one who had no idea what he was talking about. Later in the episode, after Mulcahy does come under enemy fire and is forced to perform an emergency medical procedure on a soldier even as shells are exploding all around him, the soldier welcomes the Father after all. Now they have a common frame of reference, now they can talk. Now Mulcahy gets it.”1
As you can tell from the purple and lack of alleluias and glorias, we are now in the season of Lent, and so it is now our turn to go to the front lines, to take our battle stations in the Church militant. Having seen the glory of Jesus revealed throughout Epiphany, having reached the mountaintop, so to speak, of the Transfiguration, we will make our way with Him to Jerusalem, to the Cross. That is not necessarily a pleasant walk to take, but it is a holy walk, a walk that can reveal much about ourselves and about our God.
Jesus’ first long public walk was not a pleasant one either, for what we can tell. We heard about all this not so long ago, about how Jesus was baptized, how the skies were ripped open, and how Jesus was driven – not led, not coaxed, but driven – into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit. I don’t know how many of you have spent time in the wilderness; I haven’t, at least not anywhere that could be properly called wilderness. I went camping a couple times with the Boy Scouts when I was a kid, but I’m pretty sure there was a Exxon station within a few hundred yards of us. I did a ropes course once when I was in training to be an R.A for my college dorm, but the most dangerous part of that trip was doing those ‘trust falls’ where you have to let yourself fall backwards into the arms of practical strangers. As uncomfortable and embarrassing as that was, I wouldn’t call it dangerous, and we were in a public park, which hardly counts as wilderness.
But Jesus, He was driven out into the wilderness. It wasn’t the first time an Israelite had found himself in the wilderness, of course; the most famous wilderness journey is probably Moses “leading” the Israelites out of Egypt and through the wilderness for forty years. Those Israelites faced any number of dangers on their way to the promised land, for the wilderness is what’s called a “negative” place. “The desert is a place of no water and no food since little vegetation can grow there. It is also the abode of dangerous animals. The desert is a place of extremes where choices are more clear-cut. The wilderness also could carry symbolic meaning. In the religion of Canaan, a special god named Mot (a word that can also mean “death”) was in charge of the hot, dry, barren place, the wilderness, and of the hot, dry, barren time, the summer. Rain ceases; vegetation dries up and dies. The wilderness is a negative place where the power of Death/Mot holds sway, where basic questions have to be dealt with.”2
The wilderness was not kind to Jesus. Surrounded by wild, half-starved animals doesn’t sound like fun, but Satan himself showing up is a game-changer. The wilderness boils everything down to its essence. Desire for food and water. Desire for satisfaction and power. Desire for a man’s will to hold sway over God’s will. To be the master of one’s own fate, to be the captain of one’s soul, is very tempting, but it’s also the first sin of Satan, and he sought to make it the first sin of of Jesus. In that wilderness, Jesus dealt with the basic questions, the basic temptations.
Those basic questions are, on some level, the same for all of us. Our wilderness will not be the deserts of Judah; we will all move through Lent more comfortable than Jesus was. But that doesn’t mean we can’t seek to join Him there; that doesn’t mean that we can’t seek, like Fr. Mulcahy, to speak the same language as the saints who have made their way through the wilderness, who have made their way to the front lines, to the Cross. We can seek to engage those most basic of questions, of what or who will satisfy us, make us whole, of whose will we will follow. We can follow Jesus out of the wilderness, we can follow Him in ministry to the lost; we can follow Him through His Passion and finally to the glory of which He alone is worthy, but by His mercy we will share. That is what Lent bids us to do, if only we will.
1Scott Hoezee, This Week
2American Catholic.org, In the Desert with Jesus