At the River We Stand

FROM THE RIVER to the rope. From the creek to the cross. From the dove and a "voice from above" to death by state execution and profound silence.

This is Lent. This is the Jesus Road, the Christian way. O Lord, how can we follow you?

Lent is time of remembering ourselves. In the ancient church, those preparing for baptism were publicly challenged: Do you renounce your bondage to Master Satan? Do you reject the slave-mind and all its glamour and subtle temptations? Will you allow Christ to buy your freedom?

The catechumen turned to face the east and the dawn, answering: "I give myself up to thee, O Christ, to be ruled by thy precepts."

It is Lent. We go down to the river to pray. We step into the waters of repentance. We surface as a new creature in Christ. From that moment onward, we imprint on Jesus. This is our survival strategy as newborn disciples. We follow him, like ducklings behind their mother.

After his baptism in the Jordan River, Jesus is driven straight out—into the unloved places, into the wilderness. There he is pricked by demons to toughen him up. He is being prepared. He must look into his own despair. Satan is the supreme surgeon for separating us from our hope.

This too is Lent. Staring into the face of our existential desperation. We also are being prepared, forced to release our grip on hope. All the life-scenes are smoky grey, splayed across canvas from an uncertain light source. How can we stand? We just do. We follow Jesus. Even if we do it with a thousand-yard stare.

We reach into our fast-ravaged gut and find bread to share. We mix honey and oil as a salve for the sores on the soles of the lost. We carry bitter tears to the house of the one who is weeping. We listen—even when all we hear is silence. And follow him.

"This, then, is our desert," writes Thomas Merton, "to live facing despair, but not to consent. To trample it down under hope in the Cross."

To trace Jesus through Empire means following the track of a cross dragged through the dust, the ashes. Baptism means we are imprinted on Christ. We go where he leads. This is the Christian way.

During Lent we bury all our alleluias. Then turn our face to the east, to the dawn, and wait.

As the old slave song says, there are "Bright angels on the water, hovering by the light; poor sinner stands in the darkness, and cannot see the light." We wait.

In "East Coker" T.S. Eliot writes, "I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you / Which shall be the darkness of God." Be still and wait.

In our utter lostness, overwhelmed by desert dispossession and displacement, some scavenger bird appears at our side—a hunk of bread in its beak, a scrap of our soul in its talons.

From weakened darkness at the edge of the world, a rose ripple comes across the sky. Out of chiaroscuro, the blue hour. A low bass note starts up, a deep tremor.

Something heavy in the earth is shifting. Somewhere, a stone is being rolled away.

Rose Marie Berger, author of Who Killed Donte Manning? (available at, is a Catholic peace activist and a Sojourners associate editor.

Image: Mary Freeman (

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