By Father Thomas Esposito
Special to The Texas Catholic
Israel became a nation in the barren desert of the Sinai Peninsula. The formative experience of fleeing Egypt united them as a band of refugee-brothers, but nostalgia for their enslaved lives quickly overruns them at the first sign of hunger and thirst.
What Moses realizes, and what the people must accept grudgingly, is that God has orchestrated for them a four-decades-long lesson in the proper way to move from slavery to service, a lesson that can only be accomplished in the desolate wilderness.
This period of purification demanded that the Israelites learn how to love the Lord their God, to walk in his ways, and to abandon the gods they had grown accustomed to in Egypt before they enter the land promised to them. Stiff-necked and slow to learn, they provoked God’s just punishment for their disobedience and idolatry, learning with difficulty how to become what God had called them to be: “a kingdom of priests, a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). In fashioning the golden calf while Moses converses with God on the mountain, Aaron and his fellow Israelites revert to the comforts of their idolatrous past, for so they worshiped and reveled as slaves in Egypt.
Before beginning his public ministry, Jesus retraces the steps of Israel, going out to the desert for 40 days. Though tempted by the devil to succumb to disobedience and idolatry, the very same enticements offered to Israel, Jesus conquers where Israel capitulated.
Both the purification course for weak Israel and the days of testing for the invincible Jesus are set before our liturgical footsteps this Lent. I would like to suggest a brief meditation on how we play out the desert experience of Israel within the depths of our psyche.
In terms of symbolism, the desert is a natural representation of the intermediate state in which we find ourselves during our earthly pilgrimage. We are located between death and the entry into new life, flanked by slavery to sin and freedom from it, bookended by Egypt and Israel. What we are promised by God is hinted at already in our sojourn through the wilderness of life, but its fulfillment has not yet come to us.
Even with the grace of conversion, or the awareness of our need for the sacraments and a deeper faith, hope and love, there is always an aching nostalgia for our sinful past, or a tempting tug to find a more comfortable and convenient path.
The Israelites express their ingratitude to Moses and the God who liberated them by recasting their enslavement in Egypt as a time of surplus and comfort: “Would that we had died by the Lord’s hand in the land of Egypt, as we sat by our fleshpots and had our fill of bread! But you had to lead us into this desert to make the whole community die of famine!” (Exodus 16:3).
The desert is your interior life. It is a place of solitude, where no one else can enter. Venturing into it requires you to empty your mind and heart of impurities, idolatries, and enslavement to your own will. When you find yourself agonizing over the absence of God, stuck in the sands of addiction, or afflicted with despair, your walk towards God will not seem worth the pain; everything will appear dry, lifeless, without hope.
At that point, you will be tempted to welcome the illusion that the past was a paradise, that sin was the oasis, that God duped you by luring you into the desert. But let the following words of Jesus console you: “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62). Lent is the time to look forward, to see how the future fulfillment of Christ on the cross gives our exodus in the desert a destination worth every hardship along the way.
The plow implies that fertile land is ahead, and needs to be cultivated. Those who look with longing only to the past are still stuck spiritually in Egypt; they will not recognize the manna falling presently from Heaven to feed them in the wilderness and fertilize the barren ground.
Father Thomas Esposito, O.Cist., is a theologian and monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas in Irving. His column appears occasionally in The Texas Catholic.