I can still picture them in the front row of the second-floor theater - the simple blackbox space of the local community theater where I took classes and performed in musicals from ages 10 through 17. At the end of each semester, parents were invited to fill the rows of stackable chairs set up for us to showcase the pieces we’d honed over the course of 10 weeks. Whenever I was on stage, my parents played their roles without fail. My mom would silently mouth the words to all the songs while balling up her hands into little fists in this sort of “you got this!” gesture. My dad would lean back and tilt his head to the side, beaming this epic grin as tears filled his eyes. As for me, I had no choice but to fix my gaze on other parents, or even better, over all their heads. My parents’ delight in me was palpable. And while I was deeply grateful for their unshakeable support, to look at that kind of love straight-on would have been too much to take in and remember my lyrics at the same time.
You are my beloved. In you I am well pleased.
Whenever I imagine God as a loving parent, I picture the blackbox theater.
Jesus’ desert days that we hear about in today’s Good News are preceded by another key moment in his love story with God. Jesus is baptized by John in the Jordan River. In baptism, God reminds Jesus of his core identity as Beloved by God. Right after God holds up this mirror to Jesus, he is propelled into the desert. And immediately after this desert experience, he begins his public ministry, empowered by the Spirit, preaching love and justice throughout Galilee. We can safely assume, then, that whatever happened during those forty days in the desert was important. Perhaps Jesus’ desert days can offer some insight into our own as our third pandemic Lent begins.
If we believe in Jesus’ full humanity, we might consider that like us, he knew how it felt to be stressed, distracted, and maybe even a bit untethered at times. For Jesus, and for many of us, when we get a glimpse of who we really are before God, the impact can be intense. And when desert days are upon us—when we actually find ourselves with time and space to slow down, to be with God and ourselves—the results can feel especially complex. We might choose the slow-down and reflection, like on a retreat or restful vacation. Perhaps we are invited to slow down and reflect during a special liturgical season, like Lent. Or maybe the slow-down and reflection bombard us, like after an unexpected injury or loss, or during a pandemic that makes 40 days in the desert sound like a walk in the park.
At first, pausing can feel freeing. Remember that first pandemic Lent? Alongside the undeniable fear, uncertainty, and change, “the best of us” was on full display, as folks all over the world gave generously, shared messages of gratitude and hope, and found creative ways to connect. Long walks, new hobbies, and family time (LOTS of family time) allowed many of us to discover or rediscover parts of our lives that had been neglected amid the pre-pandemic grind.
Early pandemic days forced us to hold the both/and of pain and possibility, hopeful that there was something new for us all on the other side. When I imagine Jesus, post-baptism, I suspect his early desert days might have felt something like this. In the silence, intimately close to God, and without food, I imagine Jesus had become more aware than ever of what was truly important. And as God’s Beloved, he was preparing for his mission of love and justice awaiting on the other side.
Despite our core belovedness, desert days challenge people, especially once time passes and the hanger sets in. Desert days challenged the Israelites, who longed for literal and spiritual food during their 40-year journey, as our First Reading reminds us. Desert days challenged us during our second pandemic Lent last year, with the devastation of COVID-19, racial injustice, and environmental degradation plaguing our polarized country and our exhausted families. And desert days even challenged Jesus, whose temptations in violent, unjust, politically fraught, first-century Palestine might be more relatable to us than they seem at first glance.
Remain too long in the desert, and we must reckon with the ways the evil spirit moves to separate us from God and our true selves. Luke depicts a battle between the Reign of God on one side and a counter-kingdom or empire on the other. The devil tries to make Jesus question his Belovedness before God, seeking to jeopardize God’s liberating Reign. Like us, Jesus finds himself face-to-face with seductive escapes that can feel so relieving in the moment, but that ultimately pull us away from God, ourselves, and each other.
I am so hungry for nourishment of all kinds. How can I fill this void…by
Should I numb it by drinking more?
Or scrolling for hours?
Or keeping The Office on in the background constantly so I don’t have to
So much feels out of control in this world.
Would I feel better if I could be in charge?
Or buy more stuff?
Or do more, and better, so that everyone thinks highly of me?
Am I really God’s Beloved?
When it is my time to leap, will God actually catch me?
How will I know?
Can I trust God? Can I trust God in me?
Can’t we all see ourselves somewhere in these struggles? How consoling to know that Jesus lived them during his desert days too. Let’s join Jesus in the desert this Lent, seek grounding in his companionship, and be open to the new ways love and justice beckon us toward new life.