Ash Wednesday: Into the Wilderness

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Gospel Quote

“Jesus was led by the spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” (Matthew 4:1)

Gospel Reflection

For Jesus, baptism is a profound encounter with God that deepens his understanding of his identity as God’s beloved son. Now he is led into the desert to complete his preparation. The wilderness is a dangerous place – a place of climate extremes, a place where thieves and outcasts take refuge, a place where animals stalk their pray. In the wilderness, Jesus is forced to confront his fears and wrestle with the true nature of his identity and mission.

Like Jesus, our Lenten journey begins in the wilderness, in a dangerous place we haven’t chosen, in a strange place we must befriend. Today’s ashes remind us of our mortality, call us to repentance and urge us to trust the good news. As the ashes invite us into the wilderness, we confront our ambivalence: we both long to go deeper and fight to keep our lives the same.

Each of us experiences the wilderness in our own unique way. Perhaps it is hearing that the biopsy was positive, facing the reality that a relationship is over, having death rob us of a loved one, or saying “yes” to an inner imperative that we don’t fully understand. In the wilderness, our fears loom large, we are exposed to the vulnerability of our humanness, and we find ourselves at risk.

An image embedded in my memory captures something about what entering the wilderness is like for me. The scene is my first view of San Francisco on the day I moved there. The rain was pouring down as I drove across the Bay Bridge, and the city was totally engulfed in fog. It looked as though the bridge disappeared into a cloud of gloom. I was surrounded by most of what I owned, driving into a city where I knew no one. I had no idea where I was going to live or even where I would spend the night. As I squinted through the windshield into the haze, the road ahead was barely visible.

Facing the wilderness, I knew I needed time for solitude and prayer; but I was afraid of what it would demand of me. I swallowed hard and committed myself to spending time in prayer each day. On the first day I tried to make good on that commitment, I gathered up my bible and journal and sat down facing the window. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. Within two seconds, a frightened voice inside of me shouted: “Now what do I do?”

That terrible moment – when we realize we have no idea what to do – is the moment of surrender. By admitting we are lost, we begin to open ourselves to silence and waiting. In such moments, prayer is born. We are no longer in control, so we give God room to work. We let go of our agendas, and we listen. Henri Nouwen captured this moment beautifully with the simple image: with open hands. When we surrender, we open our hands. We admit that we are not in control, and we listen for God’s guidance in our lives.

As the ashes call us into the wilderness, we confront the place where good and evil vie for control of our lives, the place of inner struggle where the voices in our heads argue about which path to take. It is there that our Lenten prayer calls us to trust God, to find the courage to surrender, to say “yes” to love or “no” to an addiction.

Lent calls us into the wilderness. When our doubts loom large and we feel most vulnerable, we are urged to trust that the Spirit is with us. We are called to surrender in prayer, trusting that God will show us the way. It is here that our Lenten journey begins…

Questions to Ponder

  • What wildernesses have you experienced – times when your fears loomed large, your humanness was fully exposed, and you felt at risk?
  • When you experience “wilderness moments” in prayer, how do you respond? Are you able to embrace the silence, trust God and surrender?
  • In what way is the Spirit urging you into the wilderness during this season of Lent?

Invitation to Prayer

Spirit of God, you led Jesus into the wilderness and were with him in temptation. Be with me in the wilderness of my own life during this season of Lent. Give me the courage I need to seek out prayer and solitude – even when I would prefer superficial distractions that keep me safe. Help me focus my energy and attention on you, stand strong in the face of temptation, stay true to myself and faithful to you.