This is the wilderness in Judea. Or at least part of it.
It's a barren wasteland. Survival out here depends on discipline. One has to find safe sources of water. One has to find some way protect oneself from the sun during the day and the dramatically cooler temperatures at night. And because there is little in the way of camouflage, one has to protect oneself from predators-- especially since those predators don't have an abundance of prey choices in such a barren environment.
From what we know of it, it wasn't that much different in the time of Jesus than it is today.
This is not a place to go wandering. It is not a place for confusion. It is instead a place to test one's will and wit to survive. You don't go here, much less spend 40 days here, and even less do that while fasting unless you are either confident of your survival skills or driven there by someone or something.
The gospels tell us Jesus was driven there-- indeed Mark uses the most graphic language of all-- he was "cast out" there, thrown out (ekbalein is the verb) just like demons are thrown out of people. And he was cast out there right after his baptism by the Holy Spirit.
Why? To get ready. To prepare. To get started on his mission on the right foot. To be sure that he wouldn't fail. To build his survival skills-- both physical and spiritual.
To get ready for what? To be tempted-- a temptation that, according to Matthew and Luke, at least, didn't happen in the wilderness at all, but after he had left the wilderness, after his 40 days of fasting were complete.
So Christians from at least the second century have taken at least some time before Easter-- initially perhaps three or four weeks, but by the fifth century a full forty days (not counting Sundays), to fast and pray, but above all to join newcomers to the faith on their final intense stretch of preparation for baptism.
Jesus was cast out into the desert by the Holy Spirit after his baptism. Christians called each other to join those preparing to live the way of Jesus in such a desert time-- not emptiness, but hard core training, stretching every physical and spiritual "muscle" they (and we) have. In some places, the very final stretch (the last two weeks before Easter) involved exorcism every single day. Cleansing. Purgation. Endurance testing. All of that. And of course, fasting, too.
Contrast all of these well-documented biblical and early Christian practices of Lent with what we see today-- across the board-- from the most traditionalist to the most "emergent" or "liberal" one might find. Where's the real, hardcore physical and spiritual challenge? Where's the disorientation? Where's the palpable danger?
Perhaps most tellingly, where's the desert?
I fear we've substituted lesser things for the raw facts of the Judean desert where Jesus spent 40 days fasting. Lesser things that have little chance of accomplishing in us or those preparing for baptism what they did for Jesus.
One of them is to confuse the raw facts of this desert, this wilderness, with what most Americans think of when we use the word wilderness-- something more like a wild place teeming with wild life, vegetation, and fairly accessible supplies of water. We think wilderness and we think something like a disorganized forest. One might wander there-- on purpose. There's something intrinsically desirable about it, even if a bit (but perhaps only a bit) risky.
The other is to metaphorize the desert. It is to speak of it as a place of silence (real deserts can be quite noisy, especially at night!), a place of retreat. A bit better is to picture it as place that's primarily about getting back to basics. But deserts of our own metaphorical making aren't likely to get us to the real basics given that many of us, especially in wealthy places, have a list of basics that look and feel like obscene luxuries to the 2/3 world.
Will we ever go to the real desert-- one that can actually challenge us enough to be ready to face and then face down Satan-- unless someone forces us to? Unless someone, or the Spirit, throws us out there?
Will we go to such a desert this Lent-- or any Lent-- or ever?
Or will we-- and I-- continue to content ourselves with wandering, dabbling, experimenting, giving up a thing or two or taking on a thing or two of our own choosing, and calling it good?
Do we mean business as the Spirit meant business for Jesus?
Or are we just vagabonds finding one more way to justify the post-modern pointlessness of a life not fed by the Word of God, carried by the Spirit of God, and directed by the kingdom of God with the people of God and our King, Jesus?
Strong Son of God who endured forty days of desert and then faced down Satan, deliver me, deliver us, from one more Lent of dabbling.
Mighty Spirit of God, who drove Jesus into the desert to prepare, drive me, drive us, to a desert, overwhelming our resistances.
Abba, who announced how well-beloved your Son was to you and then immediately unleashed the Spirit to drive Jesus to the desert, turn your severe mercy upon me, upon us, that we may know your love through your discipline and chastisement.