by Christine Sine
Last week you may remember, I sacrificed one of my masks to burn on Ash Wednesday. I was amazed at the response to my post. Some loved it as they, like me, were looking for fresh and creative ways to enter Lent this year. The old ways no longer worked for them and they looked forward to the new things God was preparing them for. Others hated it and found the deviation from old traditions offensive.
I love the traditions that give us celebrations like Ash Wednesday but I also strongly believe that we need to anchor these in practices that help us grow into a future that will be very different from the present. That seems to be part of what the time in the desert is all about. It prepares us for something new, something different. It prepares us to move forward beyond the cross to the kingdom. To me, burning old masks and making new ones speaks of preparation for that newness that will emerge from our time in the desert.
As I think about that today, I am reminded of a trip Tom and I made several years ago when we had the privilege of visiting St Catherine’s monastery in the Sinai desert. This is the oldest working monastery in existence, and monastic life in the area dates back to the 4th century. Evidently, at one point, there were something like 3,000 hermits living in the hills around the site. However, the history of St Catherine’s monastery goes much further back than that. Tradition has it that St Catherine’s monastery sits at the base of Mt Sinai. Many believe that is also the site for Moses’ encounter with God in the midst of the burning bush.
I was thinking about this over the weekend and wondering what it must have been like for the Israelites to live out in the desert. It had never struck me before that God did not send them out without a well-seasoned guide. Moses had lived out in the desert before, and if tradition is correct, then he brought them back to the same part of the desert that he was familiar with. Maybe he even brought them back to the home that he had lived in for all those years, the place where he raised his family, the place where he knew how to live without allowing the desert to consume him.
Moses would have known how to find water, how to track the animals and how to provide shelter. And not only did Moses provide guidance and leadership for them, but God also provided a pillar of cloud to guide them through the day and a pillar of fire to light the night. Talk about overkill, but a people who were not used to desert life probably needed a lot of help in finding their way.
As I thought about this, I was reminded of the Australian explorers who ventured into the desert interior of my country. Some of them took aboriginal guides with them, native peoples who knew how to recognize the tracks of animals and signs that water was close. These explorers survived. Others, like Burke and Wills, took no aboriginal guides. They perished in the wilderness.
God does not send us out into the desert to die either and though we may feel that we have been in the wilderness of Lent for a long time this year, we are not without lots of well-seasoned guides either. It is reassuring to know that thousands have walked out into the desert, led by God, before us and not only survived but thrived and have grown in intimacy with God as a result of their experiences.
My own guides are many and varied. There are those I know only by the stories I have read – people like Moses and Aaron who not only guided the Israelites so many thousands of years ago but who continue to inspire and direct us. Others like the Celtic saint Patrick, whose life we celebrate in a couple of weeks, and Julian of Norwich whose life and witness has taken on new significance for me as she was writing during the 14th century in the midst of the plague known as the Black Death, have guided not just my life but all our lives in wilderness times. For most of us, there are other lesser known guides too, like our parents, pastors and friends who have walked both beside and ahead of us through the desert places.
Who are the Moses figures in your life who have wandered in the desert ahead of you and established a home for you? Who are the ones you can rely on to find water, food and shelter for you in desert times and places? Take some time to give thanks to God for them today.