We have almost reached the half-way point to Calvary. The forty days of Lent remind us of the forty days in the desert. We’ve spent a few weeks in the desert, living our Lenten resolutions, and maybe our stomachs, or spirits, are starting to grumble for those things we’ve left behind for these forty days. How are our Lenten resolutions holding up? The Lenten resolutions are how we enter the desert. If you haven’t giving anything up for Lent yet, it’s not too late, but once in the desert, you must stay the course to reach the Promised Land.
As today’s First Reading reminds us, God is never indifferent to our struggles. When Moses asks God how he should identify him to the Israelites, suffering under bondage in Egypt, God tells them, “tell them I AM has sent you.” God is always there. He doesn’t just stop with that: he reminds them he is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to remind them that he is always faithful to his promises. He promised Abraham land and countless descendants if he had faith. Isaac was the fulfillment of that promise, and then Jacob became the father of the twelve tribes of Israel. Despite this, when Pharaoh let Moses lead Israel out into the desert, they had forty years of wandering before they entered the Promised Land—and many never made it.
In today’s Second Reading St. Paul reminds us that all the Israelites in the Exodus received the same gifts from God, but many didn’t stay the course out of evil desires. Their forty years in the desert were due to a lack of trust in God. The Lord had taken them straight to the Promised Land, but they were too scared to enter. They put their trust in food and water (and God sent them dew and manna, and quail to eat), ceremonies (trying to set up worship apart from Moses), authority and rumor mongering (asking why Moses should be the only one to speak on their behalf) – and they perished. Our Lord doesn’t mince words in today’s Gospel about how we can stay the course in the desert. We’re guilty many times of the same thing as the Israelites. We don’t understand that the desert is a place for God to purify the hearts of those he loves, away from distractions. There are far fewer distractions in the desert, but the rumbling of our stomachs is also louder, teaching us what we’re truly hungering.
Today’s Gospel shows the Jews in a drought of hope. Pilate has slaughtered a group of Galileans as they were offering worship. The Jews ask Jesus why. Why would God allow such as thing? Jesus adds an accident to the list of doubts: eighteen dead in a tower collapse in Siloam. Our Lord’s words are far from comforting: his listeners are in the same danger, and so are we. Staying the course doesn’t mean not taking risks or making sacrifices (that wouldn’t have saved the Galileans), nor does it mean getting lucky (that wouldn’t have saved the people crushed in Siloam); staying the course means putting your trust in God and showing it.
We show our trust by bearing fruit. Fruit? In a desert? We are in a desert, and God wants us to bear fruit. We bear fruit by trusting in God’s patience with us (in the parable he gives the fig tree four chances to get its act together), and, as Jesus tells us, by repentance. Lent is about repentance, not just for our sins, but for the sins of the whole world. The Church teaches us three ways to prepare fertile and fruitful soil: fasting, prayer, and almsgiving.
Penance prepares the soil, but the sacraments are how we draw close to Christ and the Holy Spirit. Jesus waters the soil with his own blood so that we can bear fruit. The Eucharist gives us strength for the journey, and the sacrament of Reconciliation puts us back on our feet and turns us back in the right direction. The fruits of the Spirit will come, as Scripture reminds us: charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, modesty, self-control, and chastity. By repentance and the sacraments we gain the strength to bear these fruits. Otherwise, we’ll lose our bearings and never get out of the desert.
In today’s Second Reading St. Paul gives a good piece of advice to those who are spiritually presumptuous: “whoever thinks he is standing secure should take care not to fall.” Life is an exodus and a desert. Through Baptism we’ve left the slavery of sin (Egypt) behind, and the world may materially present itself as a potential oasis, but in faith we know everything in it is fleeting compared to the Promised Land of Heaven. Are you taking a direction in your life that is headed toward Heaven or are you content with wandering around in the desert? The Lord will lead you to the Promised Land if you let him.