Sacrifice and Mercy: Into the Wild This Lent


When we think of the season of Lent, we’re called to reflect on the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness. This narrative is outlined only briefly in Mark but it is expanded in both Matthew and Luke. Jesus has just been baptized by John, newly ordained by the echoing voice of God calling out, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased” and immediately thereafter, scripture says He is commissioned by the spirit and “sent out” into the wild.

We’re told, “He was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.”

This is the foundation of our Lenten tradition. 40 days in the wilderness. 40 days excluding Sundays until we arrive at Palm Sunday and Jesus’ glorious procession into Jerusalem and the first steps in his march towards the cross.

Those 40 days are marked in very different ways but they’re seen as a time of commemoration and contemplation. It is a time of sacrifice and preparation.

When I asked some of our parishioners what Lent was to them, I received a range of answers. “You give up something to remember the suffering and passion of Christ”
“I never really know what to give up for Lent. I’m only 13”
“I hate that people use lent to go on a diet… ohhh I’m going to give up meat for lent”
“During Lent I give up bourbon and drink cheap white wine”
“Lent is 40 days to reflect on sacrifice and on yourself. To reevaluate your priorities. Lent is not about penance but about moving on and absolving yourself from past sins.”

Lent is a lot of things to a lot of people. But what were those 40 days to Jesus? After John had pronounced that He was “one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I’m not worthy to stoop down and untie.” and the voice of God pronounced “You are my son”, why then did the spirit lead Him out into the wilderness?

When I ask myself that question, I always come back to Christopher McCandless.

Some of you will better recognize Chris by his chosen traveling name, Alexander Supertramp. His story was immortalized in the 1990s in a book by Jon Krakauer and further explored in a Sean Penn directed movie, both titled “Into the Wild”.

It’s no question where this title came from. Chris wrote it himself as he prepared for what would turn out to be his final journey in a years long odyssey after graduating college, donating to Oxfam the $25,000 set aside for his graduate degree, and fleeing from a comfortable, though troubled, upper middle-class upbringing and seeking out something greater and more true. He wrote:

“Two years he walks the earth. No phone, no pool, no pets, no cigarettes. Ultimate freedom. An extremist. An aesthetic voyager whose home is the road. Escaped from Atlanta. Thou shalt not return, 'cause "the West is the best." And now after two rambling years comes the final and greatest adventure. The climactic battle to kill the false being within and victoriously conclude the spiritual pilgrimage. Ten days and nights of freight trains and hitchhiking bring him to the Great White North. No longer to be poisoned by civilization he flees, and walks alone upon the land to become lost in the wild.”

During the years that Chris tramped around the country he hitchhiked and camped, burned all of his money and identification. He trainhopped and canoed down to Mexico and worked at McDonalds in Nevada flipping burgers and with a Combine team in South Dakota. He met dozens of people who would share stories about his grinning personality, his idealism, and his commitment. As an acquaintance put it:

“He was hungry to learn about things. Unlike most of us, he was the sort of person who insisted on living out his beliefs.”

One devout, Christian old man in his 80s who after spending weeks getting to know him, attempted to adopt him before his great trip into the North, sent a letter to Outside magazine in response to the article about Chris’ death, saying, “He was not just the common wayfarer, Please believe me.”

When he heard the news, the man said, “I renounced the Lord... I decided I couldn’t believe in a God who would let something that terrible happen to a boy like Alex.”

This was no common wayfarer. This was no common camping trip into the wild. That’s why I always think of Chris McCandless when I think of Lent.

Like Jesus, Chris made his way into the wild seeking deep truths and a chance to understand what it is to be human. Chris didn’t make it out. He spent 113 days in the Alaskan wilderness reading, foraging, hunting, and learning. At some point during his time there, he found what he’d been looking for.
He’d killed a Caribou, an act he felt the full weight of. Krakauer’s book documented the episode:
“He butchered the carcass under a thick cloud of flies and mosquitoes, boiled the internal organs into a stew, and then laboriously dug a cave in the rocky earth in which he tried to preserve, by smoking, the huge amount of meat that he was unable to eat immediately. Despite his efforts, on June 14 his journal records, ‘Maggots already! Smoking appears ineffective. Don't know, looks like disaster. I now wish I had never shot the moose. One of the greatest tragedies of my life.”’

Shortly thereafter, he wrote in his journal, "...henceforth will learn to accept my errors, however great they be"

“Lent is 40 days to reflect on sacrifice and on yourself. To reevaluate your priorities. Lent is not about penance but about moving on and absolving yourself from past sins.”

Following this revelation, he packed his gear, shaved, tidied up the bus that had been his home for months and prepared to march back into the world. But the frozen lake he’d marched over at the outset of his journey was now a rushing, impassable river.

He never made it out. He returned to the bus and was found dead weeks later wrapped in a sleeping bag his mother had sewn for him with a photo undeveloped on his camera bearing a final portrait and a message on a page ripped from one of his books of poetry: “I have had a happy life and thank the Lord. Goodbye and may God bless all!"

We have made Lent about sacrifice for the same reason that so many are drawn to the story of Chris McCandless over the myriad examples of adventurers who live to tell the tale. The ministry of Jesus has survived in much the same way. No matter how much we look at the lessons and parables and miracles of Jesus, it is most often his sacrifice that intrigues us. His willingness and need to die that moves us.

And yet, it is that same Jesus who claimed clearly in Matthew 9: “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’”

And so that is my hope for this season of Lent. Let us put aside our obsession with “giving up” and embrace a larger desire to bring in. Let us remember what drove Jesus into the wild in the first place, a call of the spirit - and what came after, a life defined by mercy and justice, a sacrifice powerfully underlining those ideals. Let us remember the lessons that are learned in the wild. The lessons that led Jesus to declare as those 40 days expired: “Repent, the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

Jesus left the wild calling for people to change their ways. Chris McCandless entered it pleading for the same. Jesus left the wild declaring that the kingdom of God is here. Chris died with a message of mercy and a reminder scribbled in the margins of one of his books: “...happiness is only real when shared.”

So this Lent, let’s leave our focus on sacrifice and penitence for Good Friday. This Lent, let us remember mercy and goodness. The kingdom of God is at hand, let’s share that joy with one another and have the courage to live out the things we believe.


James Edwards-Acton