This Sunday’s first reading from Genesis invites us back to the beginning—to the creation of man and woman, and their original fall, succumbing to the temptation of the serpent. Ivan Kramskoi’s Christ in the Desert returns Jesus to this same beginning to face his own temptations before heading out to engage in public ministry.
Christ is seated in a rocky, arid landscape. Seated in the dust from which we came, Christ is battling. His battle is intensely psychological. As the devil tempts him with thoughts of worldly satisfaction, power, and an easier way out, he recalls the original temptation, the one Adam and Eve could not resist. This time around, Christ knows what is at stake—the gravity of the difference between Paradise gained or lost is visible on his face.
In the stillness of this arid scene, we see heaven and earth clash. In the distance we see a sky that is dawning, a subtle sign of hope that this New Adam will bring humankind back to right relationship with God. The bottom half of the image, though, is the rocky earth— a symbol of the human struggle, of the toil man has endured after the Fall, and of the unforgiving realities of human suffering if separated from God’s life-giving grace. Christ faces downward; he is embedded in this struggle, committed to enter into the depths of it. On his right, where the sky touches the desert, the background is the darkest—evoking these depths. Yet on his left, the rocky terrain reaches up to the brightening sky, seeking the light of a graced existence. And in the middle, Kramskoi places Jesus. He is the bridge between this darkness and light.
But his bridge-building will not be easy. The burden of this process shows on his face, weighs down his shoulders, and pierces his bare feet. His resolve culminates in the center of the image, in his hands gripping one another, fused together in a gesture of prayer. Strength emanates from these hands, hands of prayer fusing heaven and earth together once again as he resists temptation and remains faithful to who he is and what he is called to do.
On this first Sunday of Lent, Jesus’ strength in prayer is a gift of encouragement for our journeys as well—a gift to take with us into our own wildernesses where the voice of temptation utters false words. These hands fused in prayer remind us to resist the isolation that the devil’s false words bring, and to remain in the grip of grace—joined to God.
Commentary is by Daniella Zsupan-Jerome, assistant professor of liturgy, catechesis, and evangelization at Loyola University New Orleans.