46. DESSERT. Place to go through

Place to go through

1. Faith experience implies facing the crossing of the desert, “a hostile, terrifying place” (Dt 1, 19). It is the price of the exodus. More than a geographic place, the dessert is a hard situation. Bread or water are missing, there are no ways: “They wandered in the dessert, through the steppe, they did not find the way to the inhabited city; hungry and thirsty, their lives ebbing away” (Psalm 107).  It is a place to pass through, not to stay, a place that you must cross to reach a “land flowing with milk and honey” (Ex 3, 8). What is to day’s meaning of the dessert experience?

2. Due to its difficulties and emptiness, the desert is a place of temptation. Really, faith is tested:  "Remember how for forty years now the Lord, our God, has directed your entire journey in the desert, so as to test you by affliction and to find out whether or not it was your intention to keep his commandments. He made you experience need, he made you experience hunger, but he gave you manna to eat which neither you nor your fathers had known, to show you that man lives not on bread alone, but that all that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord. Your garment did not even fray, nor your feet swell all these forty years. Understand, then, that God your Lord has taught you in the same way that a father teaches his child" (Dt 8, 2 – 5). The word is strong, startling: he humiliated you, he tested you… Really, God does not tempt to anybody: “Let no one say when he is tempted: This temptation comes from God; God is never tempted and he can never tempt anyone” (James 1, 13). Liberation has a price. The dessert is the price of the exodus. It also has a teaching function.

3. Like Moses (Ex 24, 18) and Elijah (1 R 19, 8), Jesus confronts the experience of the dessert. He undergoes it under the spirit’s action: “He was taken by the spirit to the dessert to be tempted by the devil” (Mt 4, 1). The temptation appears (like an opening, like an abysm) between Jesus´ baptism and the beginning of his mission. It questions the baptism’s experience of faith (3, 17), and it also questions the mission coming out from it. (4, 17).

4. In Israel’s experience, the first temptation refers to the bread, a symbol of any necessity. When there is no bread, gossip against Moses and Aaron spreads: “If only we had died by the hand of Yahweh in Egypt when we sat down to caldrons of meat and ate all the bread we wanted, whereas you have brought us to the dessert to let the whole assembly die of starvation” (Ex 16, 3). And the question, the doubt comes out: “Can God spread a table in the dessert? (Psalm 78, 19)

5. The evangels present Jesus´ temptations as a fight in three rounds against an adversary. Everything could seem very simple, but, really, everything appears camouflaged.  The adversary tells Jesus, when he, “is, at last, hungry”: “If you are son of God, tell this stones to become bread” (Mt 4, 3). Where Israel forgot his mission, and, backwards to God, wanted to go back to Egypt’s caldrons, Jesus answers: “People can not live on bread alone; they need every word that God speaks” (4, 4; see Dt 8, 3). The bread is, certainly, necessary, but that who lives only on bread, does not live humanly.

6. In Israel’s experience, the second temptation is related to the water: “They encamped at Rephidim, but there was no water to drink”. Then they sue against Moses: “Why did you make us to leave Egypt to have us die of thirst with our children and our cattle?” That place was called Massah and Meribah, because of the complaints of the Israelites, who tested Yahweh saying: “Is Yahweh with us or not? (Ex 17, 1 – 7)

7. In the evangel, the adversary takes Jesus to the impressive collection of the holy city, He sets him on the highest point of the temple, and he says to him: “If you are Son of God, throw yourself down” (Mt 4, 4 – 5). Jesus´ position reveals an alien strategy. The adversary suggests provoking a border situation so that God has to free him of it. He even tries to lean on the Scriptures: “For he will command his angels to guard you so that your foot will not hit a stone” (Psalm 91). Where Israel wanted to tempt God to get a miracle, Jesus accepts the signals that God sends him without demanding any others. Because it is written down: “You will not tempt to the Lord, your God” (Mt 4, 7; see Dt 6, 16). Jesus stays into the human condition limits. : “The son cannot make anything on his own account, but what he sees his father do”. (Jn 5, 19) In this manner Jesus avoids man’s original temptation: “you will be like gods” (Gn 3, 5), leaving God aside.

8. In Israel’s experience, third temptation consists in forgetting God amidst abundance and prosperity: “When Yahweh had led you into the land which he promised to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob: great and prosperous cities which you did not build, houses filled with everything good which you did not provide, wells which you did not dig, vineyards and olive groves which you did not plant, when you have eaten and have been satisfied, do not forget Yahweh who took you out from Egypt”, “do not go after other gods” (Dt 6, 10 – 14).. The “molten calf” is the symbol of this temptation (Ex 32).

9.  In the Evangel, the alien strategy appears again: “The devil took Jesus to a very high mountain and showed him all the nations of the world in their greatness and splendour” (Mt 4, 8). The adversary appears before Jesus like “prince of this world” (Jn 12, 31), like “god of this world” (2 Co 4, 4), and he uses, in a perverse way, a messianic psalm: “I will give you the nations for your inheritance, the ends of the earth for your possession” (Psalm 2). He, really, offers him power, but the conscience becomes submitted, slaved: “All this I will give you, if you kneel and worship me” (Mt 4, 9). The man, Jesus says, should not kneel before anybody, only before God: “Be off, Satan, because the Scripture says: worship the Lord your God and serve him alone” (Mt 4, 10; see Dt 6, 13)

10. The devil leaves him “till the next occasion” (Lc 4, 13). Every time, Jesus refers to the adequate word, already said once for ever. The situation is an object of discernment. In the dessert we can feel God´s silence. The God who spoke in the past will speak again in the future, when He want to. God does not speak through magic. That is what ominous, spiritists and fortune tellers pretend. At the end, God´s messengers come to serve him. (Mt 4, 11)

11. The desert is like a test that discloses what it is in man’s heart. In this situation, man shows his true inner self. Paul recalls the Corinthians that the desert uncovers a people desiring evil things, who does not trust in God. There are the sins of the desert: idolatry and fornication, to tempt God, grumblings (1 Co 10, 6-10). Dessert generation is “stubborn and rebellious” (Psalm 78), “they make sacrifices, not to God, but to gods they did not know”(Dt 32, 17), "forty years I loathed that generation”, “ this people’s heart goes astray, they do not know my ways." (Psalm 95)

12. The desert is also a place for man’s encounter with God: “In the wilderness he found them, in a barren, howling wasteland; he shielded them and cared for them as the apple of his eye. Like an eagle watching its nest, hovering over its young, supporting them on its spread wings and carrying them on its pinions, the Lord alone led them” (Dt 32, 10 – 12). God takes care so that his people does not fall. Looking back, the people could recognise with astonishment God´s action. What could have been the tomb of the people has been converted by God in a way to go through a splendid land, lively and fertile.

13. God opens ways where there was none, he places “a way in the wilderness, rivers in the dessert” (Is 43, 19). It is necessary to collaborate with Him. It is what John the Baptist announces: “In the dessert prepare a way to the Lord, make his path straight, the valleys will be filled and hills made low. Every crooked will be made straight and the rough path smooth. And every mortal will see the salvation of God” (Lc 3, 4 – 6)

14. Desert and cross are, in a way, similar realities. The cross, to die in a cross, is the worst of the deserts. Jesus accepted to go through the cross, "so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life" (Jn 3, 15). The living God, who opens up a road where there is none, in the middle of the sea, in the middle of the desert, opens up a road where either there was none, amidst the death.

15. The dessert can be a means of growth and liberation: “There was a bird that found refuge daily in dried branches of a tree that was in the middle of an enormous desert plain. One day, the wind blew down the tree, forcing the poor bird to fly one hundred miles away in search of a new refuge...until at last it arrived at a forest whose trees were filled with fruit. In truth, if the dried tree would have remained standing nothing would have made the bird renounce to its safe place and take flight”" (A. de Mello).

* Dialogue about the experience of the dessert
-  it is a place to go through, the price of exodus
-  it is a hard situation: lack of bread, lack of water, there are no ways, it a place for temptation
-  the temptation to forget God amidst the prosperity, the temptation of power
-  into de dessert prepare the way of the Lord
-  God open ways where there are none
-  it is a means of growth and liberation

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