Beginning Lent with Jesus :: Ivan Kramskoi, “Christ in the Desert”

Christ in the Wilderness - Ivan Kramskoi.jpg
Ivan Kramskoi, “Christ in the Desert,” 1872 (oil on canvas)

The journey of Lent begins with attention on Jesus. We trace His pathway through incarnate life to death on the Cross. One of the first inklings we have in the Gospels that Jesus’ life will bring salvation at a great cost comes in the prophetic words of Simeon to Mary at Jesus’ presentation in the Temple: “a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:35). This sharp word often fades away in much of our reflection on Christmas and Epiphany, but it stands out like a sore thumb. When He grows to adulthood, this theme of costly salvation stands out starkly in Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil” (4:1-2). The emptiness of Jesus’ stomach parallels the wilderness in which He wanders. There the devil comes to destabilize Jesus with slippery questions about His identity and purpose: “If you are the Son of God…If you will worship me…If you are the Son of God” (4:3, 7, 9). Ivan Kramskoi’s painting captures the emptiness and utter aloneness of Jesus during these encounters. The landscape seems beautiful but barren, the sun is setting and the day grows dark. Jesus’ demeanor displays a heaviness and perhaps even foreboding about what the night might bring. The encounter between Jesus and the devil echoes the story of Israel’s wandering in the wilderness, caught between the land they fled and the land they hoped to reach. Hungry and tired, they began to lose their way geographically but, even more importantly, they began to lose their way spiritually. But this story of temptation does not merely reflect Israel’s exodus. This episode also echoes our own wandering in wilderness places as people destabilized and tempted, grasped by sin yet reaching for redemption, confused about ourselves and seeking after God. Jesus entered the wilderness for us that He might provide a way through it. Lent helps us see again our need for God but also that there is a way Jesus has made for us through the darkness of sin and death. We do not need to make our own way to the Promised Land. We couldn’t find our way even if we tried. Jesus went before us and carved out a road through the devil’s harsh terrain.

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