Death by water. Or death for lack of it. Whichever, they may well symbolize our deepest dreads.
The biblical story of the Great Flood, with its harrowing destruction, is generally believed to include early Mesopotamian accounts of wide disaster. But the Hebrew and Christian traditions interpret it in the context of history made intelligible by God. It has moral and spiritual import, not only for the people but for the person.
And yet water, despite its chaos, is the promise of life. Water is sustenance and cleansing. It is refreshment, purification, and promise. Thus Noah, as the embodiment of Israel, the church and perhaps all humankind, is given a regenerating covenant in the midst of utter loss. “There shall not be another flood to devastate the earth.” Later, Isaiah (Is 54) will remind Israel of God’s eternal love and pity—the only anchor in existence for Noah and all of us to depend on.
Jesus, too, knew the flood, the waters of death and life. And his going under in baptism became the first sign of his own death, his own passing through the chaos, his new covenant. His people would come to see the church, born of the water from his side, as the realization of Noah’s promise.
The desert is also an image of lostness, if not death. It has its own chaos and dislocation. Dreadful and waterless, the desert can only be survived if it is traversed. To stop is to succumb.
And so, just as the Hebrew people spend forty reluctant years learning of the desert’s hardship and wisdom, learning that only God can be their security and guide, learning that God alone can be their final food and water, so Jesus in the desert spends forty days of radical dependency, his bread not the result of his own power but of his feeding on the will of the One who sent him. He in turn will become our food, not only multiplying loaves in the desert, but offering his body as our nurture and drink.
Lent has a long history. By the end of the fourth century its duration had fairly well been settled as the days between Quadragesima Monday and Holy Thursday. Eventually it was launched with the observance of Ash Wednesday, so that Jesus’ own forty days in the desert could be re-enacted in Christian practice.
Earliest liturgical celebrations in Lent were framed in the context of baptism and penitence. We plunge into the covenant of Jesus and ratify our own symbolic admission of frailty before the forces of nature. By the tenth century, ashes became death’s remembrance.
What pulls this all together is the bleak fate of death. We return to the dust from which we came, a terrible sentence. Capital punishment is for us all: the fruit of sin, the rejection of our creatureliness, the refusal to be limited, even though loved.
For many, death makes life a cruel joke. Simone de Beauvoir said as much in Force of Circumstance, her bittersweet memoir of hopes, projects, and loves that are doomed to extinction. Bertrand Russell, in his own weighty autobiography, said that the entire sweep of human aspiration and accomplishment was little more than a dust heap before the laws of entropy.
What is the journey for? What is the upshot of this long trek through the deserts and barrenness, a few oases notwithstanding? Why wait, unmoored and tossed about on the sea of history?
It is not only humanity’s destiny that prompts these questions. It is our own, yours and mine. Every death, if we are up to admitting it, is a catastrophe. We all go under. We all die, dry and alone. Death is the flood unending, a wasteland that does not cease. Whether it is all water or all desert, life is a sheer irrational terror if water or desert is all there is.
And yet Lent invites us to enter the water and to walk the desert—to stare death itself in the face. Lent focuses on the two dominant symbols of our terror and asks us to pass through them to the other side.
God incarnate invites us. Jesus calls us to enter the waters of death with him, so as to rise. He leads us through the desert of godforsakenness to arrive at the land of promise. Lent is about our destiny.
Having himself not sinned, Jesus, Paul reminds us, became our sin and tasted its fruit of death in order to disarm it. As the “promised one,” the promise of God, he also transforms the great images of dread to signs of life.
Christ is water that does not drown us but slakes our thirst and cleanses our sin. And he himself walks all the deserts of our lives to be the path through exile and serve as food and drink along the way.