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At St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Toledo, the Lenten journey is not just a spiritual experience but a physical one as well.
Visitors to the stately Old West End church can walk through a miniature desert set up in the back of the sanctuary for the 40 days of Lent, a season that began with Ash Wednesday on Feb. 25 and concludes on Easter Sunday, April 12.
"Jesus wandered in the desert for 40 days before entering public ministry, and the Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years because they didn't learn what they needed to learn," said the Rev. Kelly O'Connell, rector.
The symbolic desert, made of sand in a makeshift container with curved edges mindful of wavy dunes, is designed to engage visitors with thoughts of biblical deserts and spiritual quests.
"Jesus was tempted in the desert. It's a place where he needed to find that strength. For us, the desert is a visceral image - stark and barren, even forbidding," Ms. O'Connell said.
Bamboo shoots jutting from the sand are tied with prayer cards and notes containing Lenten intentions and reflections written by St. Mark's members and guests.
While the church's desert is small in stature, it is big enough for people to take off their shoes and step inside to get a tactile sense of the desert experience. Some people prefer to sit or kneel beside the desert and run their hands through the sand while praying or meditating, Ms. O'Connell said.
This is the third year that a Lenten desert has appeared at St. Mark's, a symbol that was the inspiration of the church's worship team. And just as real deserts shift and change over time, St. Mark's desert changes as Lent progresses with members adding cacti or rocks to the sand. Last year, a child placed a rubber lizard in the desert, Ms. O'Connell said.
On Easter Sunday, the sand is removed and in its place appears a flowing stream of water to represent new life. The formerly barren desert area, along with the rest of the sanctuary, is decorated with Easter lilies in celebration of Jesus' resurrection.
Baptisms are performed in the Easter fountain, Ms. O'Connell said.
St. Mark's also emphasizes the importance of Lent with a booklet, "Journey Through Lent," with daily reflections and illustrations contributed by members.
The opportunity for spiritual training that Lent provides was described by Pope Benedict XVI in his 2009 Lenten message, which cites the Gospel of Mark, Chapter 4, verses 1 and 2, on Jesus' fasting in the wilderness and being tempted by the devil.
"Jesus, through prayer and fasting, prepared himself for the mission that lay before him, marked at the start by a serious battle with the tempter," Pope Benedict wrote.
He cited three penitential practices that help Christians prepare for Easter: prayer, almsgiving, and fasting.
"May every family and Christian community use well this time of Lent, therefore, in order to cast aside all that distracts the spirit and grow in whatever nourishes the soul, moving it to love of God and neighbor," Pope Benedict wrote.
- David Yonke