Like the great epics of old, Lent is a journey of heroic proportion

The shire from J.R.R. Tolkein’s “The Lord of the Rings” is pictured. Like all great journeys, Lent is a time for discovery, heroism and overcoming challenges in view of an ultimate good. (Unsplash)

“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 the 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’ 40 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 toward 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. 

Near the beginning of the Purgatorio, the second of the three books of The Divine Comedy, Dante describes a moment just before he and Virgil begin their ascent of Mount Purgatory, having just departed from the Inferno:

We made our way along that lonely plain
like men who seek the right path they have lost,
counting each step a loss till it is found.
When we had reached a place where the cool shade
allowed the dew to linger on the slope,
resisting a while longer the sun’s rays,
my master placed both of his widespread hands
gently upon the tender grass, and I,
who understood what his intention was,
offered my tear-stained face to him, and he
made my face clean, restoring its true color,
once buried underneath the dirt of Hell. 

All of the protagonists of such stories strive to leave behind forever the place of death or misery and to come safely to a land of promise, where life will be incomparably better. Along the way, it is always the case that the mettle of the adventurers is tested, usually in various and extreme ways. The journey of Frodo and Sam in The Lord of the Rings is a great example of this. The characters need to push themselves beyond any limits they had previously known, utterly exhausted and doing not only without luxuries but even without the necessities of life. Sometimes, such characters need to overcome evils that would previously have paralyzed them with terror.

Yet in virtually all of these stories, the heroes grow, their sense of purpose is deepened, and they do in fact persevere to the end. And this persevering is all the sweeter when the author makes clear not only the growth and determination of the chief characters, but also the fact that without the power of some kind of “grace,” success would be impossible. Think of the help that Gandalf or Galadriel give to Frodo and Sam, that Virgil and Beatrice give to Dante, that the sudden discovery of a river gives to cowboys dying of thirst. Each kind of story has its own analogate for the help of grace, some help that comes to the protagonists from the outside and makes a critical difference. And then there is the help that friends often give each other in these stories. One cannot imagine, for example, Huck Finn or Jim surviving their adventures without each other’s help.

Each kind of story has its own analogate for the help of grace, some help that comes to the protagonists from the outside and makes a critical difference. And then there is the help that friends often give each other in these stories. One cannot imagine, for example, Huck Finn or Jim surviving their adventures without each other’s help. So it is in the whole of the Christian life, and in that microcosm of the journey of faith which is Lent.

So it is in the whole of the Christian life, and in that microcosm of the journey of faith which is Lent. We are driven forward by need, rooted in the lethal consequences of sin. We cannot stay where we’ve been, or alienation from God and eternal death would be our destiny. And so we launch out on a journey, driven as was Jesus by the Spirit into the desert of the 40 days of Lent, marching like the Israelites from the place of slavery and death to the Promised Land of new and eternal life.

So too, we face challenges that are beyond our power. No matter how resolute we are in our determination to go up to Jerusalem, we could never make it alone. Our determination matters, but is never sufficient. We need God’s grace to make this journey, grace both looked for and even unlooked for. And God is not stingy in giving His grace, though at times we might feel as if we have been left to ourselves.

God is always with us, as He was with the Israelites — a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. In a very literal way, God stands at the head of our company whenever Mass is offered or the Eucharist is adored. The Lord simultaneously leads us and urges us onward, accompanying us every step of the way.

In the Church, sometimes we can use terms like “journey” or refer to ourselves as a “pilgrim people” in ways that seem pretty trite. But it would be a mistake to allow shallow uses of such terms to empty them of their very real and rich meaning. The Church is on a journey. We are a pilgrim people. But this journey we make together is a matter of life and death. Especially, it’s a matter of the death of Jesus and the supernova of life that breaks forth from the cross and the resurrection of the Lord. That is the Paschal Mystery, the eternal Passover, to which our Lenten journey points.

Another way of saying this is to say that if we were to have Lent, or something like it, without Good Friday and Easter — of course, this is only an abstraction — we would basically be left with a pretty futile spiritual self-improvement program. And if we were to have Good Friday and Easter without Lent, there would always be the danger of becoming totally passive spectators of Jesus’ victory without really entering in. 

There is a danger in trying to go immediately to the Promised Land, as if we were simply “beamed” there by Scotty once and for all. We need the journey. We need the cross. We need to walk with God in the desert, so that our hearts can be purified, and set entirely on Him. We need to walk with Jesus to Jerusalem, and from Jerusalem on the Way of the Cross, so that we can die with Him. This is a hard truth, and it is easy for us to want to give up, or to accommodate the journey or pretend it isn’t really necessary.

Isn’t that one of the basic problems people have today with regard to religion, that they want to accommodate it to fit their lives, rather than changing their lives to accommodate the journey of discipleship? Our culture has become poisoned by a spirit of accommodation and convenience. It is the Church’s mission to help people resist the powerful lure of this temptation and to walk with Jesus on the road of suffering that leads to glory. This invitation will be most effective, of course, insofar as the clergy, religious and faithful are walking close to Jesus themselves, able to beckon others to join us rather than merely pointing out the way.

Msgr. Ronald Knox once described the Holy Eucharist as “the day’s food for the day’s march.” The Fathers of the Church saw in the description of the Promised Land — that it would be a land “flowing with milk and honey” — a prefigurement of the Eucharist. The beauty of our Catholic faith is that we don’t need to choose between interpretations such as these. They both tell us something very true about the God Who is with us now, Who delivers us, and Who is our reward. May the presence of our Eucharistic Lord give us the strength to make a good Lent, to stay on the march, and to persevere until the hour of our deliverance.

Fr. Charles Fox is an assistant professor of theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, Detroit. He holds an S.T.D. in dogmatic theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum), Rome.