By Briana Craddock
There is a road that stretches through the Mojave desert in California that is part of the route that connects Los Angeles and Las Vegas. The road itself is mostly flat and straight, with a few dips and bumps like hills on a children’s rollercoaster. The relentless sun bakes the road, causing waves of heat to rise from the pavement and creating silvery, reflective mirages of water on the road. Rocks, sand, yucca, cholla and brush dominate a landscape painted with a palette of tans, browns and muted greens.
For some people, the desert is the destination, a place of rugged beauty that is a welcome respite from the rigors of metropolitan civilization. For many, though, the desert is simply part of a journey from one place to another.
At the beginning of Lent, we heard the story of Jesus journeying into the desert. Jesus did not go into the desert because he was traversing a road that bisected the desert. Rather, we read, “Jesus was led into the desert by the Spirit to be tempted by the devil.” (Mt. 4:1) At this point in his life, Jesus was transitioning from his private life to his public ministry. Jesus’ time in the desert, including the temptations that followed, prepared him to minister to thousands upon thousands of people through preaching, teaching, healing and nourishing. While we read that Jesus took other times away from the crowds to pray, it seems that this time in the desert following his baptism provided him with the strength that he – both human and divine — needed.
When we listened to this reading from the Gospel of Matthew on March 1, few if any of us knew of the type of Lenten experience that would be required of us this year. While the readings of this season are familiar to us, the desert into which the COVID-19 pandemic has brought us has a disquieting, surreal, almost Dalí-esque quality.
A warning that began with instructions about washing our hands for 20 seconds and memes about hoarding toilet paper became more serious very quickly. We have transitioned past simple social distancing to the cessation of in-person liturgies and the closure of non-essential businesses. We have been instructed to be “healthy at home” and to go out only to get what we need. The memes about toilet paper aren’t as funny as they used to be because finding a package is like winning some weird kind of paper goods lottery.
On the news, we hear of the vast numbers of people around the globe who have been infected, about those who have recovered and about those who have succumbed. Our sisters, brothers, mothers and fathers are suffering. It is not a problem that is occurring in some remote place. It is something that is happening here and now and all of us are facing it on some level or another.
And God is facing it with us.
Suddenly, it seems, we now find ourselves at the beginning of the Triduum — at least liturgically — but we cannot celebrate the sacred liturgies together in person. In many ways, that is significantly disappointing – for those of us who have attended these year after year, for those who are returning to the Catholic Church, and especially for those for whom this Easter Vigil would have marked their formal entry into membership in the Catholic Church. It seems, in a way, that the fasting that has so marked this Lent continues despite the fact that we are preparing to enter the Easter season. If, however, we read the Scripture readings that will be proclaimed during the Triduum and into the Easter season, we will see that our experience of discomfort, fear, grief, disbelief and disconsolation are echoed there as well — not just in Lent.
Easter is a time of great joy for us, but we have the context. We know what happened next. We know that Jesus rose from the dead, gave the gift of the Holy Spirit, and ascended into heaven. Mary Magdalene, Peter, John, Thomas and the other disciples did not know that. They knew that their friend, whom they recognized as the Son of God, had been publicly tortured and killed. One apostle betrayed him. One denied him. Most of them ran away. They were fearful; they thought they would be next. They even sat in a locked room.
While we read of the grief and confusion the disciples experienced, we also hear words spoken by the divine: “Do not be afraid. Peace be with you.”
God speaks those same words to us, especially as we continue to grapple with our own experiences of this time of pandemic: “Do not be afraid. Peace be with you.”
We cannot see the full picture, but God does. God will guide us. God loves us and always will.
“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
his mercies never come to an end.
They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
“therefore I will hope in God.” (Lam. 3:22-24)