Lent begins in the wilderness. It’s almost a worn out metaphor to talk about Lent as “journey.” I think many years I end the journey pretty much in the same place as I was at the beginning, just much more tired. A lot more tired.
Lenten discipline became popular when everyone couldn’t be martyred or make religious pilgrimages like Queen Helena, Constantine’s mum. We can’t all be martyrs, but we can sacrifice other things than our lives in substitution. We can’t all make pilgrimage to Holy Places, but we can spiritualize that pilgrimage and journey in our hearts and imagination. I think it can be really tough to simulate, much less experience wilderness in our lives. Wilderness is God’s petri dish. In the wilderness, we mix a little sperm and a couple ovum and with a little luck and some yuck a viable new life begins. God takes Israel into the wilderness but it’s not punishment. It took less than forty days and forty nights to bring the slaves out of Egypt. It took forty years to get Egypt out of the former slaves and to become a new work of creation: God’s own people.
It’s surprisingly difficult and usually expensive to go to the wilderness from where I live. I’ve been there a few times. I had to pay others to outfit me, and keep me from doing stupid things that could get a person killed in the wilderness. If you don’t outfit yourself too well, you get to experience vulnerability like you’ve never experienced it before. If you go really deep into wilderness you get to experience two exceedingly rare things: silence and darkness. No airplane or road traffic in the background. Anything that makes noise has a heartbeat or a leaf.
Once, in the wilderness of the White Mountains in New Hampshire, I had to leave the tiny pup tent Jim and I were sharing in order to go to “the bathroom” in the middle of the night. I didn’t go far, but it was enough to get disoriented and lose my way back to the tent. Jim turned on his flashlight but the light was consumed by the darkness. I think about that every time I read “Can’t You Sleep Little Bear?” Little Bear continues to be afraid of the dark all around as Big Bear brings ever larger lanterns to his room. Little Bear is not fooled. The dark is all around and everywhere. Finally Big Bear takes Little Bear out into the cold night, into the darkness that is everywhere. The moon rises, a giant on the horizon. Finally there is a light that the darkness cannot swallow. I’m sure the author had no intention of this meaning whatsoever, but I am reminded that an ancient symbol for Mary, the mother of Jesus is the moon. Her radiance is a reflection of the sun’s blinding light. We can’t look upon the sun directly. But through Mary the Moon, we see the reflection of the sun’s light even in the darkness. And the darkness is not consumed.
In her day, the wilderness was all around. Everyone went down from Jerusalem to the River Jordan, to the wilderness, to be baptized by John. It’s kind of like the battle of Gettysburg, with local women and dignitaries all dressed up to go watch the battle. They got a lot more than they bargained for. No outfitter could have prepared any of them for this. Like a horse driven by a chariot, Jesus was driven into the wilderness. It wasn’t the devil. It was the Holy Spirit. It wasn’t an unholy Spirit, an evil being. It was holiness that cracked the whip. I wonder if it was so quiet up there on the high place that all he could hear were flies. (Another name for the Satan is Beelzebub, the “Lord of the Flies.”) After forty days of fasting, there is no doubt that he was thrown upon his vulnerability. Jesus wandered, but he most certainly was not lost. He wandered as Israel and Moses wandered: in God’s petri dish. The stuff of life is put to the test. Nothing less will do in the wilderness. It’s not a place for out of shape, overweight, arthritic 50+ somethings. You test your scuba equipment on land before you jump off the boat. You test your airplane before you put it in the air. You don’t skip a grade in school before you test your skills above your level. You test your Messiah before you choose to die–or live–for him. The Satan, God’s prosecuting attorney, tests Jesus. Oddly enough, it isn’t a test of whether Jesus is powerful enough. (The translation “If you are the Messiah” gives the impression that the Satan is testing whether Jesus is or isn’t what he will be crucified for at the end of the story. “Since you are the Messiah” is a better nuance of the Greek). Jesus has the power, without a doubt. The test isn’t to see how much Jesus can bench press. The test is to see how Jesus will choose to use the power he has. It becomes clear that Jesus doesn’t have to bench press anything to demonstrate his power to anyone. It’s always back to scripture. Back to God’s power. Until finally the Satan leaves…for a while. Then something happens. AFTER the test. AFTER the fasting.
Angels come to minister to Jesus. I am especially charmed by the way the Gospel of Mark puts it: Angel and the wild beasts came to minister to Jesus. Where were they during the test? Where were they when Jesus was about to faint of heat exhaustion and hunger? Where were they when Jesus was dizzy and sun blind on the heights?
Well, it wouldn’t have been much of a test if all Jesus had to do was put on a superman cape and fly away with it flapping in the breeze. It wouldn’t have been much of a test if secret agent angels could sneak him a snack. If you’re really going for the wilderness experience, you can’t ask your outfitter to make all the risks go away. That’s called Fort Wilderness, Disneyworld.
The angels and wild beasts come to minister to Jesus when it is all over. They come. They may be lurking in the cleft of a rock, ready to fly in if Jesus’ foot is cast against a stone….but they won’t. No cheating on this test, or all of our test grades will have to be thrown out. The test becomes unreliable and the curve can’t be trusted. This test has to be reliable, with 0% deviation.
When it is our turn to wander, we need to know. We need to know that testing can only make us stronger. We know what the power of God is up to out there in the wilderness: making us Not Slaves, a new people capable of love and obedience. We will hunger, worry, and lose all our salt, and no angels will fly in to our rescue either. The dog might come up and give us a friendly lick and tail wag, but that’s it for the wild beasts too.
And then, there it is. The Satan has had his best shot. We look around in surprise to see the angels and wild beasts all around, waiting to come and minister to us. We have not been especially protected or magically removed from harm. That’s Fort wilderness, Disneyworld. Choosing to follow Jesus into the wilderness and becoming fully humanly vulnerable is a dangerous affair. You could wander around forty years or so. You could lose your shirt and your cloak because someone asks you for it. You could wear your shoes out walking the second mile. You could have bruised cheeks from offering the right and the left to the enemy and refusing to dish out all you’ve spooned up from the mean spirited and cranky people.
But we know. Angels and wild beasts are waiting. God is waiting, and God will wipe our tears and kiss our wounds God very own self. And oh yes. There’s that resurrection thing too. Even if the enemy wins and takes your life…there’s that.
The photos of wild beasts in this blog are not from a zoo. They were taken by a Williams family relative in Wales, Douey Edwards. He is a spectacular wildlife photographer, and even spent two turn in Antarctica with the Prince Charles Expedition. Recently he went to Africa, and this is a shout out to his extraordinary eye.