The Qumran community that wrote and conserved the Dead Sea Scrolls viewed their desert environs as essential to their identity. The rule for their community quotes the prophet Isaiah: “In the desert prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the wilderness a path for our God” (40:3). So they went into the Judean desert to prepare that path. This same verse from Isaiah opens Mark’s Gospel. The evangelist invites us into the desert to listen to the voice of John the Baptist, who was drawing folks from the local towns, including Jerusalem. John did not preach in downtown Jerusalem. If the urban dwellers wanted to hear his message, they had to leave the bustle of the city. The silence and solitude of the desert would help these urbanites hear his voice, which according to Mark’s reinterpretation of Isaiah, cries out in the desert. The Baptist knew the desert was essential for their transformation.
The desert was essential for Jesus too. After forty days there, Jesus emerged ready to announce his mission: the kingdom of God is at hand. His forty days recall the forty years of desert wandering that transformed the Israelites. Once slaves who had escaped Egyptian oppression, they became the People of the Book. Only after that desert experience were they prepared to enter the Promised Land and live according to the teachings they had received at Mount Sinai.
And so with us. As Lent begins, we go with Jesus into the desert to be transformed into the kingdom of God.
As I wrote this essay months ago, Rome was coming out of a quarantine that lasted around forty days (no one was allowed outside except for a documented reason). The frenetic activity of urban life was abruptly silenced on the evening of March 4, 2020, and the city of Rome became a desert. In the early morning I could hear the rhythmic activity of a woodpecker, and in the evening the call of an owl. But life in that desert was harsh. The weakest among us succumbed to a dreadfully contagious virus, while others gave their lives in service—medical professionals, grocery store clerks, truck drivers, and others who were called upon to provide essential services. Like the angels who came to Jesus, these modern angels, some of whom became modern martyrs, cared for us during our time in the desert.
In the desert, Jesus confronted and vanquished Satan. We too have had to confront our own demons during our desert lockdown. Why did so many elderly die? Why was the risk of serious illness and death linked to income, race, and access to health care? In Rome, undocumented workers lost their black-market jobs and were thrown out into the street by slum landlords. The demons that had gone unnoticed for too long now confronted us. And confront us still. Will we vanquish them? Will our sojourn in this desert become our moment of transformation?
In our biblical tradition the desert transforms its dwellers. The ancient Israelites became the People of the Book. The Qumran community went into the desert to seek God. Jerusalemites could hear John’s voice only if they traveled into the desert. There Jesus vanquished Satan and emerged to announce that the kingdom of God was near. May this year’s Lenten desert experience transform us into that kingdom Jesus came to create.