Lenten Reflection: Wild and Empty Places
March 7, 2012 § 2 Comments
I’ve been thinking about Jesus’ wilderness experience lately. The forty days and forty nights in the desert after his baptism. The time we’re ritually recalling now as Lent. I’m not exactly sure why this has been on my mind. It’s nothing I’ve focused on before.
I’m trying to figure it out. Perhaps a closer look at the story itself might help. What is in there—specifically—that’s been holding my attention? It’s not exactly the temptation part. Not at the moment, anyway. It has more to with why Jesus was there in the first place and how he got through it. I think that’s the crux of it for me.
Here is a guy who, as far as we can tell from the scriptural accounts, presents himself to John for baptism, signaling his intention to align himself in some way with John’s messianic preaching. What it was that was in Jesus’ head at any given time has been and remains the subject of pretty intense debate, so it’s not clear who Jesus knew himself to be at that moment. All we can go on, really, is his action. And his action, as it’s narrated to us, is for him to put himself in the way of God’s unfolding work among God’s people in the ministry of John the Baptizer. We see Jesus presenting himself for baptism and then—wham—he’s being driven into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit to contend with the powers of darkness for forty days and nights. Into a rocky, lonely, inhospitable place. Wandering. Just waiting. And for what? He must have had no idea. All he knew is that he’d been driven into the desert because he had an inkling that God was doing something and he wanted to be part of it somehow.
That’s what, I think, has been so haunting to me these past few weeks. Jesus offered himself up to God in order to be of service and found himself in a wasteland for an unknown length of time, for an unknown purpose, getting beaten up by the elements, hunger, thirst, and the Devil. He agonized and wandered and suffered. But he was driven. He couldn’t turn back.
If he could have gone home, I think he certainly would have. Only masochists suffer for fun. The rest of us either change our situation or endure suffering because something very valuable to us makes it bearable and meaningful. That’s the drive that keeps us moving through the difficulty rather than turning back. We endure painful medical treatments for the sake of our long-term health. We push ourselves to the very limits of our physical endurance for the sake of athletic achievement. And so on. But in this wilderness experience, that impetus to carry on was totally lacking. As far as we can tell, Jesus had no idea where he was going, when or if he would get there, or what he would find when or if he arrived. He was simply driven. That’s the only reason he didn’t turn back. Like a contemplative or mystic who finds herself in what St. John of the Cross called “the dark night of the soul,” the “arid place,” as Teresa of Ávila called it, where one’s spirit can find no rest or refreshment, Jesus was in a lonely place of total abandonment for who knew how long and for who knew what purpose because he had to be there. He trusted in the God who had brought him there—and that was enough to get him through, despite the suffering.
That is a pretty powerful image. Trusting in God so deeply that it drives you to endure tremendous hardship of unknown duration for an unknown reason, but at the same time not being able to do otherwise because your trust opens you to being driven into that wilderness and to being transformed. Of course, because we believe in a good and loving God, we know that ultimately there is an Easter on the other side of that vast expanse of God-only-knows-what. But it takes a spiritual bravery of a kind that leaves me awestruck to carry on alone and hurting solely on the basis of that hope. And yet…
– Scott MacDougall