Lent is a Spring season. In countries that have four distinct seasons, Spring is like a new birth.
Sunlight runs a race with rain,
All the world is young again.
But even in hotter countries like the Holy Land, its charm is not lost: “For see, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; the flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land” (Song of Solomon 2:11f).
This is the atmosphere of Lent, strange to say! We may have associated it rather with winter, but the word itself, ‘Lent’, comes from ‘lengthen’: the days begin to get longer in Spring. The Liturgy (1st Preface of Lent) calls it “this joyful season.” It is about the surprise of new life coming from what appears dead, as Spring comes from Winter.
The Gentle Spirit of God came down, like a dove, on Jesus at the Jordan, and God spoke within him, “You are my Son, my beloved one...” But the very next verse says, “Then the Spirit drove him into the desert!” It doesn't follow ordinary logic. We would have expected the Spirit (“the Comforter”) to keep him in comfort! Instead he is driven out from all comfort and security, into the desolation of the Judean desert. The name for that desert was Hinnom, “the Desolation.”
What kind of comfort can we expect from the Comforter? But look more closely at the word ‘comfort’. It comes from the Latin 'fortis', which means ‘strong’. Comfort therefore means strength! In the Bayeux tapestry (depicting the invasion of England by William the Conqueror in 1066), the English commander is shown at the rear of his troops, prodding them on with his spear, or as the caption reads, "comforting his troops." But modern usage has weakened the meaning with softness and gentle touches; in fact it has come to mean just about its opposite of strength: weakness.
Jesus was driven into the desert so that his gift might become his, by being tested. Nothing can be given to us on a plate (except biscuits!). There is no contradiction between receiving something as a gift from God and earning it. Someone offers to teach me Russian, let’s say: they give me endless hours of their time - a generous gift; but the language will never become mine if I don’t work at it. There is no contradiction between grace and merit. This is the right season of the year for remembering that.
In Jewish and Christian spirituality the desert is the place where you meet a) wild beasts and demons, and b) possibly God. It is a place of ambiguity: the worst could happen, or the best. A desert offers you nothing, so you have to find resources within yourself; you are put to the test: in biblical language, you are ‘tempted’. We all like to put ourselves to the test, just a bit; we like to pit our strength or skill or intelligence against odds, but we also know when to stop! Luke says Jesus was “led by the Spirit through the desert” (4:1), but Mark says more bluntly, “the Spirit drove him out into the desert” (1:12). He was tested beyond what he thought he could endure. That is what makes a hero.
Mark’s Gospel never attempts to smooth the edges of a story. He shows Jesus getting angry at times, where the others don't. It works both ways: he also shows him to be more affectionate than the other Gospel writers do (for example, Mk 10:16). Mark’s Jesus is more emotional, shows his feelings more. And why not? “He was like us in all things but sin,” St Paul said. We somehow develop an image of holy people as stoical, impassive, bland. It may be because so many wretched statues look just that way. But surely, the holier you are the more you feel, not the less! If you always live within your ‘comfort zone’ you become selfish. It is only when you have dared to go beyond that zone - into the ‘desert’ - that you begin to know even what you yourself feel, let alone what others feel. Lent is the season for that journey beyond comfort.