Was it not too many days gone now that we called him Emmanuel, God with us? And now a few months later, brief as I am sure the years seemed to Mary, here is Jesus, Our Lord and King, wondering off into the desert, seemingly away from us. Thus begins the holy season of Lent, Christ hiding seemingly just after He appeared to us.
But friends, in all truth we are the ones in the desert hiding, the dried out cavity of our hearts our dwelling place. When God became God with us in Jesus, he knew it was the desert caves that awaited him, to the scorching sands he must trod. Here in Lent, God languishes with mankind in the many man-made wastelands we have wrought for ourselves and one another.
Behold then the Son of Man, Jesus, desiccated and alone. Behold now the gaunt rib cage of God, empty from a weeks-long lack of food. Behold this God who was and is and always will be all fullness, all fruitfulness, all over-flowing fecundity, here in the sand hungry, something an alarming few of us in the West have ever truly felt. We stumble our way through a single day of light-eating, and here sits the God of all creation with a gnawing absence in his belly. We hem and haw whether to put a five dollar bill in the hand at a street corner lest we appropriate some unseen germ, and here is God letting the acidic burn of dissipating fat, the common dis-ease of all wasting flesh, wash over him as he makes it truly his.
On this day of fasting, we who have plenty to eat think excessively of food, but what about Christ's thirst? Can any words be more truly said of Our Lord than those on the Cross, "I thirst," as if his life is one unquenchable draught from the drink of mankind's misery? When we think of the Chalice whose bitter dregs he willingly drank, the Sacrifice of the Altar, do you not realize my friends that all altars are thirsty, as any rudimentary survey of pagan literature makes good and apparent? In Lent, this thirsty God calls us to quench his seemingly endless thirst with souls, our own indeed, but others as well. Sitting in the desert alone, wretched from hunger and thirst, Our Lord calls out to all mankind, imploring us to join him, not merely as some sort of retributive punishment, but as a justice to quench his thirst for mankind.
And lo, in his kindness Our Lord presents before us two altars* in which to quench his love for his fallen creatures, one the altar of Sacrifice, but the other the altar of the hands of the poor. For the first altar we fast and pray, so that we may be a worthy oblation to approach this God-in-the desert, so we can join ourselves to his life. But it is in the second altar that we share this God with others, that we poor out our excess to quench their lack. With the first altar we join the Son of Man in the desert of his sacrifice, and with the second altar we imitate in the smallest way the profuse charity God has shown us in finding us in our desert caves. Such love for us does our God have that he provides all that we need to empty ourselves this season, just as he emptied himself in the desert. He provides us the means to make room for his coming 40 days from now in glory.
In this holy season, God is most assuredly with us, dear brothers and sisters, in the hungry and thirsty body of Jesus in the desert and in the hungry and thirsty bodies of his poor. There is no question he is Emmanuel. Indeed, the only real question we have for ourselves these 40 days is, are we with Him?
*I first encountered this idea in Gary Anderson's incredibly insightful book, Sin, A History, a book I would wholeheartedly recommend for Lenten reading.