“God spoke further to Moses: ‘Go and gather the elders of the Israelites, and tell them, The LORD, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, has appeared to me and said: I have observed you and what is being done to you in Egypt; so I have decided to lead you up out of your affliction in Egypt into the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Girgashites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, a land flowing with milk and honey.’” —Exodus 3:15a, 16-17
In this text from Exodus 3, which appears in the Office of Readings on the Saturday after Ash Wednesday, the Lord for the first time promises to “lead (the Israelites) up out of (their) affliction in Egypt” and “into a land flowing with milk and honey.” And this saga of Lord’s deliverance of Israel points to one of the great overarching themes of Lent. That is why the Church so heavily emphasizes the Exodus account during the Season of Lent.
This theme is what we might call, to use the term characteristic of the New Covenant, the Paschal journey, of Lent. There are times when some Catholics find that fasting and other acts of penance cause them to feel kind of stuck in place and listless. But the words “stuck” and “listless” are utterly foreign to the meaning of Lent. Lent is about the people of God being on the march, out of Egypt and into the Promised Land. Even when God’s people seem to be wandering in the desert, the Church is always moving, always advancing, always experiencing the deliverance of God.
Not that this is the only Lenten motif. Obviously, Jesus’ forty days in the desert are also essential to our understanding of Lent. But during this season we follow Jesus not only on His journey into the desert, but also on the road to Jerusalem. Luke 9:51 tells us that “When the days for his being taken up were fulfilled, he resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem.” Catholics ought always to be determined to follow Jesus, but Lent is a time to make sure we are resolutely determined. Or, to reference a correlative text, Isaiah 50:7, to make sure that each of us has “set his face like flint.” It is not easy to advance towards the place where we know we’re going to die, even when we know the resurrection will happen there too. Lent is a time to allow God to strengthen our resolve so that we will “not rebel, not turn back” (Is 50:5).
Those who have studied literature know that the great journey is one of the favorite templates of epic stories. From Homer’s Odyssey to Dante’s Divine Comedy, from the great quests of medieval knights to The Lord of the Rings, from the journey of Huckleberry Finn and Jim down the Mississippi River in search of freedom, to the cattle drives of so many western novels, the epic journey is one of the most important and evocative of literary themes.
And these stories often share many of the qualities of the biblical narrative of the Exodus, which is in turn, of course, a type of Our Lord’s Paschal Mystery. In so many epic poems and novels, the characters launch out on a journey, the distance and difficulty of which they can hardly reckon. They often lack the knowledge and skills necessary for success. They are usually driven by dire need, perhaps fleeing from some evil situation in the place they leave behind.
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