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Friday, February 28, 2020

Christ in the Wilderness - 1st Sunday of Lent

Ivan Kramskoi's Christ in the Wilderness (1872)
Matthew 4:1-11
At that time Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert
to be tempted by the devil.
He fasted for forty days and forty nights,
and afterwards he was hungry.
The tempter approached and said to him,
“If you are the Son of God,
command that these stones become loaves of bread.”
He said in reply,
“It is written:
One does not live on bread alone,
but on every word that comes forth
from the mouth of God.”
Then the devil took him to the holy city,
and made him stand on the parapet of the temple,
and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down.
For it is written:
He will command his angels concerning you
and with their hands they will support you,
lest you dash your foot against a stone.”
Jesus answered him,
“Again it is written,
You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.”
Then the devil took him up to a very high mountain,
and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in their magnificence,
and he said to him, "All these I shall give to you,
if you will prostrate yourself and worship me.”
At this, Jesus said to him,
“Get away, Satan!
It is written:
The Lord, your God, shall you worship
and him alone shall you serve.”
Then the devil left him and, behold,
angels came and ministered to him.


One of my favorite paintings is Ivan Kramskoi’s 1872 Christ in the Wilderness. It depicts Jesus sitting on a stone near the end of his forty days in the desert looking utterly broken and in misery. “There is nothing festive, heroic, or victorious” about that Jesus, one art critic wrote. It is hard to believe that “the future fate of the world and of all living things is concealed under the rags of that miserable, small being.” 

Our Gospel reading this week directs us to this Jesus who, tempted by Satan in the desert, is also sleepless, shivering, and hungry. “If you are the Son of God,” Satan challenges him, “command that these stones become loaves of bread” (Mt 4:3). The premise of Satan’s argument is especially potent: “if you are the Son of God...” Don’t we often use the same premise, not necessarily to tempt Jesus, but to plead with him? “If you are the Son of God, cure my migraines…” “If you are the Son of God, heal my father’s cancer…” “...dissolve my depression; stop the wars; contain the diseases.” “If you are the Son of God…” “Are you not the Son of God?” 

In the face of all this, it can be very confusing and painful to see Jesus just sitting there ― as he does in Kramskoi’s painting ― himself awash in the same pain and devastation. Somedays I want to shout into that painting what one of the criminals who was crucified with Jesus shouted at him: “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and save us!” (Lk 23:39)

So why doesn’t Jesus turn the stones into bread? Why doesn’t he dissolve all our troubles? Why is he just sitting there? 

When Kramskoi’s Christ in the Wilderness was first displayed in a public exhibition, many critics noticed that Jesus’ face was painted to look just like the face of the artist. It had the same sharp lines, the same angled cheekbones. It was Kramskoi. Some people were offended. But Kramskoi was not trying to elevate himself ― he was not trying to say that he was as righteous as Christ. He knew that was delusional. 

What he meant to convey, rather, was that Jesus is truly one of us, that Jesus desires to identify with our stories. Jesus has a human face that is like ours, a story like ours, agonies like ours. The larger point is this: the fact that Jesus is sitting on that stone at all ― the fact that God is, like us, a tired and broken human being ― is precisely his answer to all our pleading: he is in solidarity with our pain. The reason he won’t take any food is because he wants to be as broken and hurt as any human could be. God wants to place himself in the fray of human misery, not above it. It is true that God is not necessarily going to dissolve all your suffering, but he will experience it with you. This is what Kramskoi was able to depict so vividly: the migrainous, cancer-ridden, depressed Jesus ― the Jesus who looks exactly like you and me because he is racked with all the same miseries.

We often think of Lent as the time where we participate in Jesus’ suffering in the desert. But ― in light of all this ― it is much more important that we see Jesus’ forty days in the desert as his own exhausting effort to participate in our suffering. Lent is that time where we remind ourselves that Jesus decided to suffer alongside us. Lent is that time where we go back into the desert, not so we can grind it out and earn points before God. That’s delusional, offensive even. On the contrary, Lent is the time where we go back to the desert so that we can see and unite ourselves with the Jesus who is refusing food in order to be in solidarity with us, with all of us who are starving, cold, and hurting.


~Anthony Rosselli (PhD cand., theology, University of Dayton) writes out of St. Luke and Ascension Parishes in Franklin County, Vermont. These columns are archived here.

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