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Lent, the Wilderness, and Celtic Christianity

How is Celtic Christianity inviting me into this Lenten season?

My first engagement with church happened within the context of American Evangelicalism, and as an Evangelical friend of mine recently said, “We don’t really know what to do with Lent”. As I began to participate in the season more intentionally, one of the first things that became dislodged within me was the assumption that Lent was all about Easter – Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. While it is difficult (and probably unhelpful) to completely separate Lent from Easter, it has been transformative for me to intentionally remember the narrative that inspires the season – Jesus’ wilderness temptations.

The reality is that the wilderness has served a crucial role within the Christian (and Jewish) tradition. The beginning place for most Jews is not found in the book of Genesis, but in Exodus with the deliverance of the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt. This deliverance took the shape of a 40 year wandering through the wilderness on the way to the much anticipated “Promised Land”.

John the Baptist leaves all of the comforts of civilization and makes his home in the solitude of the wilderness in order to live the prophetic life. It is from this margin of society that his ministry begins to take shape and he is able to prepare the way for Jesus, the Christ.

Jesus goes to John in the wilderness in order to experience his baptism. The baptism itself is best described as a “mountaintop experience”, and Jesus probably feels more ready than ever to begin his public ministry. But immediately after the baptism, Jesus finds himself in the harsh wilderness for 40 days of temptation – 40 days of being tempted to identify with anything outside of his True Self.

The Desert Mothers and Fathers left the rapidly christianizing Roman Empire and fled to the wilderness in search of something more true to the heart of Christ than what they were seeing evolve within the church. It is from this margin of the empire that their prophetic voice continues to be heard today.

It is in the context of the wilderness that I often find the most personally meaningful place of Celtic Christianity today. Early Christianity in the Celtic world drew heavily from the desert tradition. Rather than the increasingly powerful and rigid structure of the empirical church, the Celtic church was monastic in origin, and the image of existing on the margin of the empire is perhaps nowhere more true than in Ireland, where life under the rule of the Roman Empire was always just outside of its borders.

As I engage more deeply with Celtic Christianity, I become more convinced that it is one of the voices calling us back to the wilderness during this Lenten season. It’s a call to the wilderness which exposes the flaw of such a corrupt marriage as church and national power. It’s a call to the wilderness which removes the distractions so we can more clearly see the ways we are being tempted to not rest in the truth of our being. It’s a call to the wilderness which prepares us for the work of being a prophetic voice in the world – preparing the way for Christ. It’s a call to the wilderness which prepares us for a new reality of life, a reality – free from that which enslaves us – in the Promised Land.

Ben Edwards is a member of Celtic Way's Board of Directors. Read more about him here.

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