COVID-19 and the Wilderness Journey

The Church is traveling through 40 days between Easter and Ascension.  This marks a transitional period for the disciples as Jesus prepared them for their mission as Apostles. We have a unique opportunity this Easter season as we journey through COVID-19. God is drawing us deep into relationship with him and calling us to repentance.

40 Days of Meaning

40 days is significant in Scripture. It is often a liminal space between the “no longer,” and the “not yet.” Noah and his family waited 40 days after the flood for the waters to recede. Moses dwelled on the mountain for 40 days, listening to God. And the people waited in the valley (not so faithfully) for 40 days for Moses’ return. Elijah fled from the evil Jezebel 40 days, until he reached Horeb (the mountain of God, likely the same mountain as Moses).

Jesus fasted in the Judean wilderness for 40 days. Notice it is a transitional moment at the beginning of his ministry. Then he spends 40 days after the resurrection and before the ascension. The 40 days in the wilderness prepared Jesus for his mission, and the 40 days before the Ascension prepared the disciples for their mission as Apostles.

Into the Wild

How would you describe the desert, or the wilderness? They are spaces without possessions and without shelter (you can’t take much with you into the desert). In these contexts, we are vulnerable to the elements and the wilds of nature. In French one translation for the wilderness is les lieux vides, or simply the empty spaces. In the wilderness, we are also vulnerable to time and our own emotions of fear, isolation, and despondency. 

But the wilderness can also be a space of recognition, of humility, and of deep change. It is a malleable space where we can be reformed.

Nature has its way of proving we are not entirely in control. Because of this, the wilderness journey takes on special meaning as a space of transition and transformation. Borrowing from the French again, the wilderness can be a passage obligé, an “essential passage.” 

In the space of years, the People of Israel passed through 40 years of transition. This experience drew them through disorientation to a critical inner orientation. Through the Exodus, God delivered the people out of Egypt, but in the wilderness God delivered Egypt out of the people. Their wilderness journey prepared them for a land of their own and gave them a God-shaped way of living in that Land.

Lead us not into temptation                                  

The transformation of the wilderness does not come without its temptations. A few years ago, there was some debate around the phrase in the Lord’s prayer, “Lead us not into temptation.” Theologians argued that God does not lead us into temptation, so maybe we should pray, “let us not be led into temptation.” Either way, no one wants to be led into temptation. And if God leads us there, we’d better be good students of our wilderness journey and come out better.

Even for our Lord, the wilderness took the form of testing. It should not surprise us that our wilderness spaces will involve fasting from depending on ourselves and feasting on God’s presence and help. In the space of COVID-19, the People of God are in what could be called a ‘Eurcharistic Exile.’ In the isolation of this wilderness, we are cut off from the presence of other people. But we are not cut off from God’s presence. In fact, we should be drawn further into Him. Being so close to God has a way of changing us.

Don’t waste a good wilderness

When we don’t know where we are going, we are confronted with the only direction available… going inward. Author David Brooks would say this is coming face to face with Adam II. He references rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik who noted that the two accounts of creation (Genesis 1 and Genesis 2) describe two sides of man’s nature. Adam I was work-oriented and external. Adam II was morality-oriented and internal.

Even the name for God used in the two accounts is different, God-Creator (Elohim) vs. Lord-God (Yahweh). In times of plenty we can be creative, we can be productive. But in the isolation of wilderness we have the unique opportunity to evaluate ourselves in light of the Lord God’s commands. In the silence of the wilderness we have the time to evaluate our inner dialogue and our patterns of behavior. The wilderness is the space where our character is tested and built.

But we can make waste of our wilderness too. The wilderness can be a place of hiding as much as a place of confronting.

Man also hid in the garden when confronted with the reality of himself. We too can refuse to evaluate and change. We can choose our old orientation, maybe even desire to go back to Egypt. But we will miss out on nothing short of redemption and salvation. Oddly, God uses the wilderness to save us from ourselves.

The great temptation is for us to simply blame others rather than to take responsibility and make changes ourselves. This is inherent in the wilderness experience. After all, how did we get here? Who is responsible for this wilderness? It is very tempting indeed to find someone to blame. It’s the Chinese, they were sick before us! Or it’s the deep state, you can’t trust the government! Whatever form it takes it blames the other and deflects responsibility from self.

But spend long enough time in the wilderness and these scapegoats will get old. With God’s help, we will start to suspect ourselves. We will come to grips with our former complacency and complicity in the fallen world behind us, and we will commit to changing the world ahead of us.

From Wilderness to Mission

The wilderness journey prepares us for Christ’ mission. We mustn’t forget that Jesus’ disciples went through 40 days of confusion, fear, threat, and preparation for the mission that awaited them. Every Easter we read through the accounts of the women at the empty tomb, Thomas and the disciples in the Upper Room, and the Road to Emmaus.

This year we have an even more poignant invitation into this 40 days of in-between. We are all passing through the wilderness space of COVID-19. We do not know what’s next or where we are going. But in this unique space we are invited into deep relationship with God and further into mission with Christ.

Hopefully, we will be changed in the wilderness. And hopefully the traces of the wilderness will remain with us even after COVID-19—an honest estimation of ourselves, an utter dependence of God, and a radical compassion for others.

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