The fear of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom, says the Book of Proverbs. It is this fear of the Lord, rather than some kind of personal challenge out of enlightened self-interest, that should drive our Lenten discipline. The secular world is big on the idea that one must fast from a whole lot of things for a whole lot of worthy reasons about one’s health or that of the planet. Lenten penance is not the same thing. It is motivated by fear of the Lord, which, as the eminent Old Testament scholar Gerhard von Rad says, is simply “Obedience to the divine will.”

All that modern stuff about you don’t really have to give anything up, indeed it’s much more mature to take up something extra, sounds compelling if you don’t examine it too closely. Better for whom? It is predicated on the mistaken notion that Lent is for self-improvement. For the problem of obedience only arises when I am confronted with a will which is alien (in the original, Latin sense) to my own. My choosing things which I hope will impress God, while improving myself to my own satisfaction, is more like a regimen of exercise or diet. It is not really the same thing as obedience.

The goal of Lent is to enter more profoundly into the obedience of the Son of God. Even he, though he was Son, learnt to obey through suffering, the Letter to the Hebrews tells us, because he had a fully human will and his loving obedience was demonstrated by surrendering to suffering and death. He had to confront an alien will: “Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass me by.” A true Lenten discipline, then, involves the disciple following his Master into the desert. Put bluntly, if the sinless Jesus was driven by the Spirit into the wilderness where he fasted and prayed, why would it make sense for any of us to decide that it is an immature or rigorous Christian who can’t come up with something more creative? The wilderness is the place where Israel learnt obedience, and not without a struggle. This is why Jesus embraces it and makes its privations redemptive.

Israel’s 40 years wandering in the wilderness – the type, or foreshadowing, of Jesus’s 40-day fast – has different connotations for the different sources which go to make up the biblical history of Israel. For one source, the 40 years merit just a few lines. The period is of little significance compared with the salient events of the Passover, Exodus, crossing the Red Sea and the entry into the Promised Land. For another source, there is a penitential, even punitive element implied because the people rebel.

As detailed in Chapter 1 of Deuteronomy, instead of going back to the Red Sea after spending a year at Sinai, the Israelites march north and attempt to enter the Promised Land on their own initiative, in defiance of what Moses reports of the Lord’s command. They are defeated by the Amorites and so the 40 years’ duration is seen as a punishment, a time for a whole rebellious generation to die.

A contrasting strand, which comes more from the Psalms and prophets, is that the wilderness was at first like a kind of honeymoon, when Israel first came to know the Lord: a time of an intense awareness of his presence. In Hosea, the Lord recalls the wilderness as place of mutual tenderness: “Therefore I will allure her and lead her [Israel] into the wilderness … and there she shall answer as in the days of her youth, as when first she came out of the land of Egypt.” For the psalmist, these are years of God’s continuous presence and care: “For 40 years, I led you through the desert.”

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