The desert waits … the city beckons (Lent Year A)

The period of Lent is forty days—although it actually takes 46 days to get from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday. The reason for this is that Lent is reckoned by omitting the six Sundays in this period, since Sundays are not counted in the season of Lent itself. An explanation for this was given in a statement from the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965), reflecting on ancient practice: “The Lord’s Day is the original feast day.… Other celebrations, unless they be truly of greatest importance shall not take precedence over the Sunday which is the foundation and kernel of the whole liturgical year” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, No. 106).

As the forty days draw to a close, I am reflecting on how the experience has been this year. There is always a lot of focus at the end of Lent, for it is then that we move into the high season of Easter, filled with the emotions of Good Friday, the liminal space of Holy Saturday, and the joyful celebrations of Easter Sunday. There is also a focus, somewhat less, at the start of Lent, with Shrove Tuesday—the original Mardi Gras (meaning “Fat Tuesday”) followed by the solemn Ash Wednesday rituals.

These reflections explain how Lent has been held within the Congregation where I am a member: Tuggeranong Uniting Church, in the southern suburbs of Canberra, in the Australian Capital Territory. Each weekday during Lent, first thing in the morning and then again at the end of the working day, before evening sets in, a group of people from the Congregation, and some beyond, gather online for a brief (8–12 minutes) of prayer and reflection. It is a way of marking the season in a distinctive fashion.

At each gathering, there is an opening prayer, taken from a prayer by Ruth Burgess, published in the Iona liturgical resources: the desert waits. It is a theme that invites us to pause, slow down, listen, and pray. So we hear a short scripture reading, a brief reflection in response, and then listen to a psalm. (There are many wonderful videos of psalms being sung by contemporary artists—the Sons of Korah, Francesca LaRosa, Poor Bishop Hooper, The Psalms Project, Jason Silver, and more). The session ends with a closing prayer and blessing.

The desert waits is also a theme that resonates with a key New Testament story—that of Jesus, in the wilderness for forty days, tested by the devil and sustained by angels. By tradition, it is the Gospel reading for the First Sunday in Lent every year (this year, we heard Matt 4:1–11).

That story, of course, draws deeper from the wells of Hebrew Scripture, where many stories include the time frame of forty days, or forty years. Rain fell during the flood for “forty days and forty nights” (Gen 7:4); then Noah waited for forty days after the tops of mountains were seen after the flood, before releasing a raven (Gen 8:6–7). The people wandered in the wilderness for forty years, to “suffer for their faithlessness” (Num 14:33) at the decree of the Lord, “until all the generation that had done evil in the sight of the Lord had disappeared” (Num 32:13). The spies which Moses sent into the land returned to report to Moses after forty days (Num 13:25).

Moses was said to have spent three consecutive periods of “forty days and forty nights” on Mount Sinai; first, to receive the Torah (Deut 9:9–11), then to beg forgiveness on behalf of the people (Deut 9:25–29), and for a third time seek again God’s forgiveness (Deut 10:10–11). A number of leaders in Israel were said to have reigned for forty years: Eli (1 Sam 4:18), Saul (Acts 13:21), David (2 Sam 5:4), and Solomon (1 Kings 11:42). The prophet Elijah walked for forty days to Mount Horeb, where he meets God “in the sound of sheer silence” (1 Kings 19:12).

All of this indicates that the period of forty days or years was a rounded-out way of describing “a long period of time”—not an accurate reporting of precise days or years, but an indication that whatever was being described was an extended, lengthy period of time. It was a story-teller’s phrase, not an historian’s precise chronicling.

During the extended period of this current Lent, in the online daily prayers each morning being hosted by Tuggeranong Uniting Church, we have traced the theme of wilderness, through a series of readings that commenced in the stories of the ancestors: Abraham and Hagar (Gen 16:7), Hagar and Ishmael (Gen 21:14, 20–21); and Moses on Mount Horeb where he saw the burning bush (Exod 3:1–7).

After that, we spent a week hearing of the travails of the Israelites in the wilderness (Exodus 13–17) and then passages which indicated the extent of the land that was promised to them (Exod 23:31–32; Deut 32:8–10; Joshua 5:6–9; and Joshua 20:7–9) before ending the week with a song about the power of God, seen in creation (Psalm 29:5–11). These stories each morning were coupled each evening with a psalm which was read and then sung, during which our personal reflections were voted.

Following that, the focus of morning prayers was on hearing the names of the people who already lived in the land that had been promised to Israel from the time of Abraham onwards: “the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaim, Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites, and Jebusites.

We heard the genealogical list of the descendants of Canaan, the grandson of Noah (Gen 10:1–20), then the promise to Abraham (Gen 18:1, 18–20) and then to Moses (Exod 3:7–10), the instructions given through Moses to “make no covenant with them and show them no mercy” (Deut 20:1–5), and the list of “the kings of the land whom Joshua and the Israelites defeated” (Joshua 12:7–8). Each time, a list of these original peoples was given. Again, a psalm for reflection was matched with these passages.

This list of people already inhabiting the land, but confronted by—and in some cases annihilated by—the invading Israelites, is sobering. For each day during this week, we viewed, firstly, the map of peoples in Canaan, and then the map of peoples on the continent of Australia that we know were here before the British invasion and colonisation of 1788 onwards.

There were many more nations in Australia than there were in Canaan, which is of course understandable since the land mass of the continent is far, far larger than that of Canaan. However, there are very strong resonances between the fate of the First Peoples of Australia and the fate of many of the peoples of Canaan. (The graphic description provided in the battle scenes of Joshua and Judges were not read during the daily prayers; these are available in our Bibles for people to read and reflect on individually.)

So alongside the map of those First Nations, we began to reflect on the experience of those peoples. We heard how the Uniting Church has described this period of history in the opening clauses of the Revised Preamble to the Constitution of the UCA (adopted in 2009 by the National Assembly). We listened, each day, to Aboriginal singers, singing both in their own languages as well as in English: the late Dr. G. Yunupingu (known as Gurrumul), Frank Yamma, Archie Roach, the group Wildflower, and then Yothu Yindi, singing their key song, “Treaty”. And we heard sentences from the 2017 Statement to the Nation read each day.

After this week of listening to the voices of the indigenous people in the morning prayers, the following week offered a series of reflections with a different psalm sung each day, drawn from the quieter, reflective psalms in which the psalmist reaches out to God to seek support and healing. It is as if these psalms might be sung by the First Peoples, in the light of their experiences of invasion and colonisation, the many massacres that took place, and the intergenerational trauma that resulted.

As we heard these psalms sung, we began also to listen to the series of psalms known as the “Psalms of Ascent”. They are so called because it is believed they were sung by faithful Israelites as they made their pilgrimage to Jerusalem on one of the three annual festivals—the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Passover), the Feast of Weeks (Pentecost), and the Feast of Tabernacles (as listed in Deut 16:16). They begin “in my distress I cry to the Lord” (Ps 120:1), moving on to “I lift up my eyes to the hills” (Ps 121:1), as the outline of the city on Mount Zion appears in the far distance.

We can imagine the pilgrims drawing closer to the walls of the city as the psalmist sings, “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord!’l (Ps 122:1), then offers an expression of trust in God (Ps 124:8; 125:1–2) and confidence in God’s house (Ps 127:1). I imagine that, entering the city, the psalmist offers to a heartfelt cry to God from “out of the depths” (Ps 130:1), and as the Temple comes into view, sings, “Let us go to his dwelling place, let us worship at his footstool” (Ps 132:7).

Psalm 134 in Hebrew

As our daily prayers continue, we hear the shortest of all the Psalms of Ascent, with the pilgrims “stand[ing] by night in the house of the Lord”, concluding with the prayer, “may the Lord, maker of heaven and earth, bless you from Zion” (Ps 134:3). As the season of Lent had begun with the theme “the desert waits”, so as we draw near to the end of the season, “the city beckons”. It is in the city that the pilgrims of long ago offered their sacrifices and praised their God. It is in the city that the story of Jesus, recalled especially in the days of Holy Week, reaches its climax.

This brings us to readings which recollect the entry of Jesus himself into the city of Jerusalem (Matt 21:1–11), the week of scenes in the Temple precincts (Matt 21:12—23:39) and nearby (Matt 24:1—26:2), and the hatching of the plot to arrest him (Matt 26:3–5) which would lead to his death, which is recalled as Good Friday ends the period of Lent.

We end daily prayers during Holy Week, on the morning of Maundy Thursday, with a section of Psalm 22. We know this psalm best from the fact that Jesus was said to have begun to say it, as he hung on the cross (Mark 15:34; Matt 27:46). Whether he intended only to speak the first verse, or whether his waning strength meant he could get no further than this, we do not know.

We cannot know whether Jesus intended to end with the words of praise from the later part of the psalm (vv.21b to 31), with an exultant “praise in the great congregation”, proclaiming “his deliverance to a people yet unborn”, as some scholars speculate. More likely, in my thinking, he was content to stay in the despair and agony of the opening section (vv.1–21a), feeling forsaken, his prayers going unanswered, one scorned and mocked, “poured out like water, all of my bones out of joint, my heart like wax, melted within my breast “ (v.14).

The psalm portrays a man, completely human, utterly defeated, with no hope, crushed by events. Both Mark and Matthew report that this is how he ended his life. The end of our Lenten journey takes us to this place of abandonment. It will be the work of Easter to process the powerful emotions generated by this devastating state of being, and move through the testimony offered about the ensuing moments, to come through the tunnel of darkness, into “deliverance [for] a people yet unborn” (v.31). Those days are still ahead.

Author: John T Squires

My name is John Squires. I live in the Australian Capital Territory. I have been an active participant in the Uniting Church in Australia (UCA) since it was formed in 1977, and was ordained as a Minister of the Word in this church in 1980. I have served in rural, regional, and urban congregations and as a Presbytery Resource Minister and Intentional Interim Minister. For two decades I taught Biblical Studies at a theological college and most recently I was Director of Education and Formation and Principal of the Perth Theological Hall. I've studied the scriptures in depth; I hold a number of degrees, including a PhD in early Christian literature. I am committed to providing the best opportunities for education within the church, so that people can hold to an informed faith, which is how the UCA Basis of Union describes it. This blog is one contribution to that ongoing task.

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