Garden and Desert

March 09, 2019

Saturday after Ash Wednesday

It’s Lent, and somebody’s got some ‘splainin to do.

As much as today’s catechists try to emphasize this as a holy time of drawing closer to God through increased prayer, almsgiving, and yes, fasting, we seem culturally to have a hard time associating this season with joy. It’s so easy to get caught up in eating fish, avoiding chocolate, and trying to figure out what to do about chocolate fish, that sometimes we fail to really think about what’s going on. Instead, many of us tend to focus on our sacrifices, what we’re “giving up for Lent”. Old habits die hard. Shame on us. How did we get here though?

Yes, this season does have its somber moments: we begin by remembering our mortality (“we are dust”) and end by anticipating Christ’s sacrifice for us. Yes, it is a season of repentance, and acknowledging our failings can be painful at times. Yes, some of us might have great difficulty with our Lenten sacrifices… as long as we are making a true sacrifice, that is. One year I decided to give up sarcasm for Lent. You can ask my students how that went.

There is a time to suffer, and sometimes it can lead to great growth. Redemptive suffering is a reality. This does not mean that suffering is in itself good however, or that it represents God’s deep desire for us. Even this Lenten season is about so much more.

As long as you don’t look to them for historical or scientific fact, much wisdom can be found in the Genesis creation stories. For one thing, God’s initial plan was to give us a garden to enjoy, not a desert to endure. We only lost our earthly delights when we become dissatisfied with all the goodness that was meant for us and insisted on having that which wasn’t. We only lose our paradise once our plenty becomes not enough. Some of us never even experience plenty in the first place because previous generations lost it for us.

This year, I have come to a greater appreciation of the spiritual significance of Carnival / Mardi Gras. Marking the approach of Lent with a display of excess never made sense to me before, but this year I got to celebrate with the devil. Carnival is a major event here in the Dominican Republic, with celebrations occurring every Sunday in February leading up to Ash Wednesday. The parades feature numerous characters from local tradition, popular culture, and the evening news, but you can always count on their being colorful devils, some of which crack whips in the air and strike passersby on their backsides.

It’s all in good fun, and every attempt is made to ensure a safe environment at the public celebrations, but I’m sure that, as with any major gathering, at some point things get out of hand and some people end up getting hurt outside of the public view. The harmless devils in the parade may distract us from the real devils in the crowd, but they also remind us that the things that tempt us are usually not entirely evil but rather distortions of some good. We are meant to enjoy life’s pleasures, but when that pursuit becomes our absolute priority, we can become monsters who no longer respect the dignity of our fellow creatures nor the generosity of the great Giver. When our attitude towards these goods becomes entitlement instead of gratitude, we have lost our way. The fun devils can remind us that if we focus only on the enjoyable things, the real devil lies in wait. So we do not go into the desert and fast because the earthly delights of the garden are bad, but rather so that we can remember how good they are, enjoy them in their proper measure, thank God for them, and share them with others. If, with integrity, you are able to more mindfully enter into this appreciative state through enjoyment rather than deprivation, I fully understand—even though your Sunday school teacher might not.

To encounter God more deeply this Lent, many of us do need to go into the desert though. Once there, you may find hidden signs of life and beauty—the desert is not truly barren after all. Much desert life has adapted by hiding in caves or underground during the hot day and only coming out at night. Many species of both plant and animal have learned to use water and expend energy more efficiently. The desert can be beautiful, and there is much for us to learn there, whether it is our permanent home or we just stop in from time to time. With the right eyes, some of us might find that even the desert is a garden.

Whether you pass this Lenten season in the desert, the garden, or both, remember that, in the words of Bro. Paul Ambrose, “you will never repent a Lent well spent.”


This week I’m cheating by combining the “ear candy” and “brain food” into one. There is an animation I came across several years ago on YouTube that imagines each of Jesus’ 40 days in the desert. In an incredibly beautiful and powerful way it portrays not only the length of time (relax, the video is only five minutes) but also moments of joy and wonder mixed in with those of doubt and pain. It has become a traditional Lenten reflection of mine, and there is one version where this animation is combined with a song whose lyrics are all about the power of God’s devoted love for us. It seems an apt way both to start Lent and to tie into this week’s reflection.

Ear Candy & Brain Food: Animation – “40” by Si Smith; Music – “How He Loves” by John Mark McMillan

Come back next Saturday for a new post!