By Paul Knudtson
The church’s observance of the forty days of Lent is rooted in Jesus’s forty days of testing in the wilderness after his baptism. Jesus’s wilderness testing recalled Israel’s forty years of testing in the wilderness following her deliverance from Egypt (the exodus) and preceding her entrance into the promised land.
The dates for the season of Lent differ each year, based on the varying dates for the celebration of Easter. This year (2020) Lent is from February 26 – April 11. Easter Sunday will be on April 12. Lent consists of forty days that begin on Ash Wednesday and conclude on the Saturday before Easter (and does not include the Sundays during this period).
During Lent this year, I have been preparing to teach a church history course on the history of the Christian church prior to 1500, that is, on the early church and the medieval church. This course was to be offered in an intensive, one-week format offered March 23-27, but has now been cancelled due to the COVID pandemic. Yet the preparations for this class, together with the enforced social isolation due to the virus, have combined to give me a unique perspective regarding my experience of Lent this year.
What has especially caught my attention in my study of the early church has been the birth of monasticism in the eastern Mediterranean around the time that the Roman Emperor Constantine identified himself as a Christian (though he was not baptized until he lay on his deathbed in A.D. 337). As Christianity enjoyed the support of the empire, and as many of its rich and influential citizens became Christian rulers of state and church, so a counter-cultural movement of lowly believers arose in the Egyptian wilderness and elsewhere. These believers sought to live out the radical demands of the gospel as they gave up wealth and the comforts of human society in order to know and love God above all.
The word “monk” comes from the Greek word, monachos, which means “solitary.” So the first monks went out into the wilderness alone as they sought fellowship with God. In doing so, they patterned their lives after Jesus, who after his baptism and then at various times throughout his ministry, went out to be alone with God. “But he would withdraw to deserted places and pray” (Luke 5:16).
Following the example of Jesus (see also Mark 1:35), a principal focus of these wilderness Christian monks was prayer. Jesus’s teaching on prayer includes an admonition to shut out all outside distractions. In his sermon on the mount, he says, “But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matt 6:6). So the monks sought God in the hiddenness of their wilderness cells. While most monks throughout history lived in communities with other monks, they maintained a focus on leaving the distractions and comforts of the world in order to pray.
The early Egyptian monks (both men and women) came to be referred to as the “desert fathers and mothers.” Many of their sayings have been preserved and are still available. As I was preparing for my church history class during the past month, I have been reading a book that includes many interesting samples of these sayings: Desert Fathers and Mothers: Early Christian Wisdom Sayings—Annotated & Explained (Skylight Publishing, 2012) by Christine Valters Paintner.
The Coronavirus pandemic has meant that this year we are forced into a kind of monastic retreat from the world as we each learn to practice social isolation, each living apart in our homes as if in monastic cells. Like most others, I spend my days now almost completely at home, together with my wife, Elaine. In days to come, I will always remember how during Lent 2020 I was forced to live like the monks of old, separated from the world. Each day Elaine and I go for walks in our little “wilderness,” a walk that takes us on a path running through the trees along the Bow River. We listen to the honking of Canadian Geese, or chatter of other birds. We hear the soothing sound of the water as the river flows along. We feel the warmth of the spring sun on our bodies. And I think of the desert monks—and before them, of Jesus of Nazareth—who sought God in the wilderness. And I wonder what I am to learn during this Lenten time about prayer and about the pursuit of what is most important in life.
Here I am in warmer days in a wilderness setting, with a bag of books and a folding chair.
So, for Lent this year, I am learning afresh from the desert fathers and mothers about seeking God as I spend time alone in this present wilderness. Let me quote some of these early monks. Abba Moses said to another Christian brother who was seeking a word, “Go sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything” (Paintner, p.7). Just so, I feel that I (we) have been given the same instruction. It would be more fun to enjoy the usual distractions of visiting others, or of going out to eat, or even of going to the mall, but now is a time for simply sitting in our cells. Christine Valters Paintner says, “It is a way to retreat from the noise and activity of life and remove the disorienting and distracting voices—our own inner voices and those of others (p.6).
Another desert father, Abba Arenius, gives this counsel to a person troubled by a compulsive need to do something: “Go, eat, drink, sleep, do no work; only do not leave your cell” (Paintner, p.13). These monks had learned the value of staying put, of stability and steadfastness. The followers of the rule of St. Benedict (A.D. 530) made a “vow of stability,” which meant that they pledged themselves to remain at one monastery for the rest of their lives. They were not to move about from monastery to monastery seeking the one that would best suit them at any given moment.
We live in a highly mobile culture. We are accustomed to moving about quickly and spontaneously, even travelling to far off lands by airplane. Elaine and I love to travel to Europe for vacation. Now all of that has stopped as we are no longer permitted to travel to other countries, nor even to go to places where people congregate, or even to go to our places of work. We are told repeatedly on the public media to “stay at home!” We are, as it were, being given the council of Abba Moses, “Go sit in your cell,” and of Abba Arenius, “do not leave your cell.”
Amma (mother) Matrona said, “We carry ourselves wherever we go and we cannot escape temptation by mere flight” (Paintner, p.23). An anonymous desert father similarly says, “If a trial comes upon you in the place where you live, do not leave that place when the trial comes. Whenever you go, you will find that what you are running from is there ahead of you. So stay until the trial is over . . . ” (Paintner, p.23). So one of the blessings of a Lenten season such as we are having this year may be that it makes it easier for us to face our demons, to acknowledge our besetting sins and temptations, in order to deal with them adequately. To do this, it helps to stay put rather than escape to some far off land of distraction.
As I think about the thousands of Christian men and women who left the comforts of city life to live in their cells in the wilderness, I ponder their lives in order to learn about finding God by eliminating the distractions of a busy life. Though this enforced time of social isolation in the spring of 2020 is difficult and unsettling, it may also be a way to become reoriented concerning what is most important in life.
Here I am sitting in the sun with my sister Lois in our farmyard 60 years ago (Spring 1960).
From early childhood we learn that life is wondrous and precious. How I enjoyed exploring our farmyard as a preschool boy. I would wonder from the barn, to the corral to observe the cattle, to the garage, and among the trees of the shelter-belt around our yard—often accompanied by our dog, Sport. It is easy as we become adults to lose the sense of wonder we enjoyed as children. The monks invite us, I think, to rediscover this, and to leave behind a superficial life that often misses what is most important. Abba Poemen said, “Do not give your heart to that which does not satisfy the heart” (Paintner, p.31). Perhaps Lent this year will give us opportunity to consider what truly satisfies out hearts, what quenches our deepest thirsts. “O God, you are my God. I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water” (Psalm 63:1).
This is the Bow River just a block from our house and the place where I go for walks almost every day. It is a little piece of wilderness that runs through our neighborhood.
As stated above, those early monks who sought God by leaving society to go into the wilderness, did so in imitation of Jesus in the gospels. In the midst of his busy ministry, with crowds of people coming and going, Jesus says to his disciples, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while” (Mark 6:31). So it is that the desert fathers and mothers and sought God in wild, deserted places.
As I reconnect with these monks—and with Jesus and his disciples—during this Lenten season, I reflect on how what we refer to as “nature” is a good context for renewing one’s relationship with God. Indeed, many monasteries came to be built in places of special natural beauty. God’s presence is mediated through creation. The apostle Paul writes, “Ever since the creation of the world [God’s] eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen though the things he has made” (Romans 1:20). Lent is a good time to become more observant of the beauty of this creation and to consider how it bears witness to a good Creator. Psalms 65 and 104 celebrate the goodness of creation.
You visit the earth and water it, you greatly enrich it; the river of God is full of water; you provide the people with grain, for so you have prepared it. 10You water its furrows abundantly, settling its ridges, softening it with showers, and blessing its growth. 11You crown the year with your bounty; your wagon tracks overflow with richness. 12The pastures of the wilderness overflow, the hills gird themselves with joy, 13the meadows clothe themselves with flocks, the valleys deck themselves with grain, they shout and sing together for joy. (Psalm 65:9-13)
My wife, Elaine, and I have had the privilege of taking a number of trips to Norway, to beautiful locations such as those pictured here. Norway is the land of my ancestors.
I will remain ever thankful that I grew up in the country on a farm. Our farm was a half mile from a coulee, which was a kind of wilderness to which I would often retreat. I loved riding my bicycle down the dirt road leading to the coulee and then along the coulee bank. My brothers and I enjoyed countless hours exploring the coulee hills as we looked for special rocks, such as pieces of petrified wood or petrified shells, or pieces of crystal or other attractive stones.
In the winter we would toboggan in the hills of the coulee. Our father purchased two quarter sections of pasture in this coulee, so we also often traveled to the coulee to check on the cows or to have family picnics with wiener roasts. As an adult I often thought that it would be a great place to have a cabin where one could find a place of retreat. Sadly, in recent years our family sold these coulee quarter sections, but I still treasure the memories of the many hours spent among these hills. And I have learned that there are countless places where one can seek retreat.
This is the path to the coulee that I often rode along on my bicycle.
We often met for picnics as a family at the coulee.
After mom moved off the farm to live in an apartment in Camrose, she still enjoyed visits to farm and to the coulee. Here she is taking a photograph of our beloved coulee.
It remains for me to examine and consider the biblical roots of the monastic retreat to the wilderness and of the church’s annual observance of the forty days of Lent. As stated at the outset of this reflection, these roots lay in Jesus’s forty days of testing in the wilderness and Israel’s forty years in the wilderness before entrance into the promised land.
The book of Exodus in the Old Testament describes how the people of Israel were delivered from slavery in Egypt through God’s act of deliverance. This liberation from Egypt through a series of plagues and rescue at the Red Sea is known as the exodus. It is followed by Israel’s forty-year period of wandering in the wilderness, followed by her entrance into the promised land (as described in the book of Joshua).
Israel’s forty years in the wilderness was a time of testing and temptation. Life is difficult in the wilderness. One’s life becomes vulnerable and precarious because the basic needs of food, water and shelter are in short supply. Just so, the severity of life in the hostile wilderness environment tested the limits of Israel’s faith in God. When there was no water, the people complained to Moses their leader, saying, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” (Exodus 17:3). Their desperate situation even caused them to doubt God’s love and care for them. They asked, “Is the LORD among us our not?” (Exodus 17:7).
In a similar way the desert times in our lives can push us to our very limits where we wonder whether we will live or die, and whether God is with us or not. In wilderness periods, people sometimes give up on God. Many become atheists. Others become bitter. In the case of Israel, the lack of food and water in the wilderness led them to complain against their leaders Moses and Aaron, and against God (Numbers 21:5). They told Moses and Aaron, “If only we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and at our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” (Exodus 16:3) “They tested God in their heart by demanding the food they craved. They spoke against God, saying, ‘Can God spread a table in the wilderness? Even though he struck the rock so that water gushed out and torrents overflowed, can he also give bread, or provide meat for his people?’” (Psalm 78:18-19)
In the New Testament, the apostle Paul discusses the spiritual significance of Israel’s time in the wilderness. In 1 Corinthians 10, he compares Israel’s deliverance at the Red Sea to Christian baptism (10:2), and implies that Israel’s reception of food and water in the desert should be likened to the spiritual food and drink in the bread and wine of the eucharist (10:3-4, 17, 21). Paul calls upon the believers in Corinth to resist the temptations of this life and to not be like the Israelites who gave in to the sins of idolatry (10:7), sexual immorality (10:8), putting the Lord (or, Christ) to the test (10:9), and complaining (10:10). Paul affirms that God provides the needed help to overcome the testing or temptations of the wilderness. “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing, he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it” (10:13).
Finally, it is fitting during Lent to consider Jesus’s forty days of testing (or temptation) in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11; Mark 1:12-13; Luke 4:1-13). Jesus’s time of wilderness testing followed immediately his baptism in the Jordan River. “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Matt 4:1). As stated above, this forty day period of testing (Matt 4:2; Mk 1:13; Lk 4:2) has become the template for the Church’s annual observance of Lent.
It may be helpful to note how the key Greek terms used in such scriptures may be rendered in English. The Greek verb peirazo may be translated as, “tempt” or as “test.” Similarly, the Greek noun peirasmos may be translated in English as either as, “temptation” or “trial.” Therefore, it would be correct to translate the phrase in a passage like Matthew 4:1 as either, “to be tempted,” or “to be tested.” Jesus’s wilderness time was a time when he faced testing and temptation. A test always involves the possibility that one will fail the test—that is, that one will succumb to the temptation.
It is also interesting to note the Spirit’s role in Jesus’s experience of testing by the devil. Matthew uses a purpose clause here: “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Matt 4:1). God evidently wanted Jesus to face the testing presented by his foe, the devil. In a certain sense, spiritual testing or temptation is a good thing, a necessary thing.
Similarly, educational training involves testing. Students must demonstrate through testing that they have mastered the material. All professions require those who are to become practitioners to pass rigorous tests. It is not possible, for example, to become a medical doctor or engineer or airplane pilot without passing tests. In a similar way, God prepares people—even his own Son—for ministry through rigorous testing. The book of Hebrews speaks of the mature “whose faculties have been trained by practice to distinguish good and evil.” (5:14). Concerning Jesus, Hebrews say, “Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered” (5:8). Similarly, just as Jesus’s baptism was followed by a period of testing, so we should anticipate that our baptism into Christ should lead to our testing as well. As is clear from the more extensive descriptions of Christ’s temptation in Matthew and Luke, Jesus faces this spiritual testing of the devil by quoting scripture. In response to each of the three temptations, Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy 6-8, texts that describe how Israel was to meet her challenges in the wilderness. But in the wilderness Israel failed to learn to trust in God as they ought to have done. When food and water were lacking, they turned against Moses and God, thereby putting God to the test. Jesus reenacts or recapitulates Israel’s history as God’s obedient, trusting Son. Jesus’s threefold quotation of Deuteronomy highlight lessons regarding life in the wilderness:
1. “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (Deuteronomy 8:3 in Matt 4:4 and Luke 4:4) 2. “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” (Deuteronomy 6:16 in Matt 4:7 and Luke 4:12) 3. “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” (Deuteronomy 6:13 in Matt 4:10 and Luke 4:8)
As we live in the company of Jesus in our own wilderness, we may learn several lessons. First, life does not consist of having and consuming those things that people commonly use to satisfy human cravings. Life is more than bread alone. [Interestingly, it was in the desert that Israel received supernatural food, that is, manna or “bread from heaven” (Exodus 16:4).] So, Jesus reminds us that “one does not live by bread alone.” Similarly, the desert father Abba Poeman says, “Do not give your heart to that which does not satisfy your heart.” (Paintner, p.31)
Second, one learns from Jesus the difference between trusting in God for protection from harm and “putting God to the test.” The devil quotes portions of a wonderful Psalm to Jesus, Psalm 91. This Psalm is especially fitting for those living amidst the dangers of the wilderness. The Psalm offers this promise to those who trust in God: “You will not fear the terror of the night, or the arrow that flies by day, or the pestilence that stalks in darkness, or the destruction that wastes at noonday” (91:8-9). These words seem especially relevant to our present circumstance.
In the wilderness one is cut off from the usual supports and protections that one relies on in the city. But while the Psalm gives exactly the sort of promises of divine protection that one needs in a dangerous land, Jesus rightly discerns the difference between faith in God’s protection and putting God to the test. Putting God to the test involves pressuring God to bring about our deliverance in a way that we have determined.
Third, in the wilderness one learns what it means to trust in the one true God. In the wilderness Israel succumbed to the temptation to worship other gods. While Moses was away on the mountain with God, the people of Israel grew impatient and made a golden calf and worshiped it. “[Aaron] took the gold from them and formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’” (Exodus 32:4). Matthew and Luke describe how the devil sought to tempt Jesus to worship him. Jesus showed Jesus “all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor” and promised, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” (Matt 4:89; see also Luke 4:5-7)
In the wilderness we are often tempted to worship what is not God.
Severe testing reveals the true character of a person. People may appear pleasant when all is going well, but when hardship comes, one learns what a person is really made of. Trials cause some to become angry and bitter, and even to turn against God. When Job suffers horrendous trials, loosing his children, his property, and then his health, his wife gives him a council of despair. “Curse God, and die,” she says (Job 2:9). But Job cannot do this. He tells her, “Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” (2:10). Though Job does not understand the meaning of what has happened to him, he does not give up on God.
All humans, including Christian believers, encounter many trials and temptations in life. A relationship to God does not exempt a person from troubles. Biblical narratives illustrate how various people of God have experienced such trials. The story of Abraham in Genesis shows how his life is determined both by the promises of God (of descendants, land, and blessing) and by a multitude of threats that endanger these promises (such as famine, his own fear, infertility, and old age). In each instance, God’s promises seem endangered by trials. Yet, in spite of obstacles, Abraham believes God’s word of promise. “And he believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6). Eventually Abraham and Sarah in their old age experience the joy and laughter brought about by the fulfillment of God’s promise as they have a son, Isaac. But even then God sends a trial to Abraham. In what is surely one of the most poignant lines in all of Genesis we read, “After these things, God tested Abraham” (22:1). Genesis 22 records what is, in effect, Abraham’s final exam. God asks Abraham to offer up his beloved son, Isaac, as a burnt offering. Once God sees that Abraham is willing to do even this, God stops Abraham as he is about to slay his son. Abraham passes the test and God tells him, “now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son from me” (22:12).
While Jesus is tested in the wilderness for forty days prior to the beginning of his public ministry, his final test comes as he learns that he is about to be condemned to death, after being mocked and flogged (Mark 10:34). As he faces this test, Jesus tells his disciples, “I am deeply grieved, even to death” (Matthew 26:38). He prays to God in the garden of Gethsemane, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want” (Matthew 26:39). But like Abraham and Job, Jesus passes the test, remaining faithful until the end. Concerning this, the author of Hebrews writes, “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission” (Hebrews 5:7).
Though Lent officially ends this year on April 11—with Easter Sunday on April 12—our enforced social isolation due to the COVID pandemic may, in effect, extend our wilderness period considerably longer. But as always, the wilderness is not to be our permanent home. In the wilderness we are to learn how to look forward, to anticipate the goodness that awaits us. In the wilderness, Israel looked forward to her entrance into the promised land, “a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:8). Later while they were living in this land, the prophets taught the people to look forward to that day when “they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid” (Micah 4:4). Similarly, Jesus endured the trials of suffering and death while anticipating “the joy that was set before him” (Hebrews 12:2).
In the words of the Nicene Creed, “we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.” And while we wait, we pray in the words of the Lord’s Prayer, “Save us from the time of trial” (modern translation) and “deliver us from the evil one” (my translation).
Some wandered in desert wastes, finding no way to an inhabited town; hungry and thirsty, their soul fainted within them. Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress; he led them by a straight way, until they reached an inhabited town. Let them thank the LORD for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to humankind. For he satisfies the thirsty, and the hungry he fills with good things. Psalm 107:4-9
(Scripture References throughout are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible.)