Whenever Gospel accounts of Jesus’ 40-day fast in the desert are proclaimed, I think of Mark’s version, which includes the phrase, “after which he was very hungry,” and Luke’s “at the end he was hungry.” I used to find those words curious, if not amusing. And I’d think, “Well, who wouldn’t be hungry after nearly six weeks without food?” But I learned that there is far more to the statements than at first meets the eye.
First of all, a possible and very plausible interpretation of the story is that the number 40 is symbolic and not to be taken literally. That number is used elsewhere in the Scriptures and refers to the 40 years the Jews are said to have wandered in the desert under the leadership of Moses. Its inclusion in this scenario might be to identify Jesus as a second Moses, or as the one that Moses’ life pointed toward.
But, the purpose of Jesus’ fast: what was it? I believe that it was his desire to be sensitized to the mission of his life, to understand its objective and implications, and to assent to it without compromise, no matter what lay ahead. He must have suspected, maybe clearly knew, that there were unspeakable sufferings he would have to endure. As many of his followers did much later on in history – one among the most recent, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – he had the premonition of an early and violent death. He was free to say yes or no to the whole project; his conversation with God in the desert had to assure him that yes was the right response and that the Spirit of God would lead him through it and into eventual victory.
The course of our lives is pretty well set by this time, I assume you adults agree. What then is the point of our doing anything remotely like what Jesus did? In answer, the same verb comes to my mind: we need to be sensitized to the tasks of our lives that are ours now or that lie ahead. We need to respond with a firmer-than-ever yes. We need to get more in touch with the sufferings of our fellow human beings and realize that we can and should help. Whatever it is that we are giving up or doing during Lent, it can make us think more tenderly about those close to us whose personal sufferings we can alleviate and also those, both near and far, who are cruelly deprived of even the most basic requirements of human life. And then, feeling their misery and pain and hopelessness, we can resolve to do something, however small, to make a positive difference in their lives.
Sister Wendy Beckett is that charming English nun you used to see quite regularly on PBS giving the most interesting talks on the world’s great art masterpieces. She wrote once, “Lent is the time for working out what you are meant to be doing, what in your life gets in the way…You may realize with a jolt that you are basically indifferent to God…Whatever it is that needs to be changed in your life, now is the time to find out what it is and summon the courage to address it. The ‘penances’ of Lent are not meant to destroy our innocent pleasures but to keep us aware of God.”