This Lent I can’t abstain from caffeinated coffee because I am not drinking it at all. But for years it has been a not so trivial way to help me step into the season of Lent. Not being a “morning person,” my cup of coffee in the morning helps me wake up, and offers comfort with my morning routine. I miss my life without it, and the little deprivation can make me aware of my not so civilized reactions to the morning that lay just under the surface.
And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness for forty days, being tempted by the devil. And he ate nothing during those days. And when they were ended, he was hungry (Luke 4).
A spiritual journey to the desert is not a day trip, or even a camping trip. One doesn’t pack supplies for the desert. The point of the desert is not first about what we take in, but about what comes up when our human supplies are depleted.
Bread. How difficult would this be for the Word who spoke manna from heaven, keeping people alive for forty years? Later, this Word enfleshed would lift small loaves to heaven and feed thousands. But in this moment, he meets the devil as a hungry human being. And Jesus answered him, “Man shall not live by bread alone.”
Our physical appetites are good servants but poor masters. Whether we are talking about food, drink, sleep, movement or sex, these instinctual needs are our inheritance with all God’s critters.
But unlike animals, whose natural instincts keep their appetites in check, we rational animals ever struggle with balance. When I think of the Church in my lifetime and throughout Christian history, the endless swings between legalism and license abound.
The desert is a place to stop swinging. To admit, with Jesus, that of course we need food, but that food is not an end in itself. Trusting the provider of every good gift is the point.
So Jesus teaches us the way to address the appetites of the flesh that so easily imprison us. Without denying the physical need, long for that which is greater: feed on God’s word, become a spring from which living water flows, reflect light from above, run and feel God’s pleasure, press into honest relationship.
I’m not suggesting a silly legalism, but rather, an old time-honored practice. In Lent we pay attention the pendulum between legalism and license and find a renewed capacity for a third way: thoughtful obedience connected to the dependence on God at the core of our existence. “I will, with God’s help” is a wonderful third way. Let us join Jesus in the desert this Lent, that we may more fully embrace Easter joy.