Grace to you, and peace, in the name of Jesus our brother who embodies God’s love for us and leads us into life. Amen.
Taken into the wild at the Spirit’s leading, Jesus, the newly baptized, fasts forty days and nights, tempted by the devil even before the threefold test begins. The Spirit descendent like a dove had alighted on him at the Jordan, when John had drawn Jesus into waters and the Voice declared him ‘the Beloved.’ But the next thing we know, “full of the Holy Spirit” Jesus is led out. He’s led out deep into Judean wilderness, to desert landscape—that spare terrain—“location of choice in luring God’s people to a deeper understanding of who they are” (Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes, 46).
Like those before him whose sojourns in the wild are part of the ‘family story,’ Jesus’ time of solitude occasions not only struggle but, more basically, a stretching, a breaking-open if you will: exposure to elements and to the Elemental. In the desert, as on Dakota plains about which Kathleen Norris so famously wrote, “A person is forced inward by the sparseness of what is outward and visible in all [the] land and sky… what seems stern and almost empty is merely open, a door into some simple and holy state” (Norris, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, 157).
The territory of Jesus’ testing is no small part of the story as a whole. That fierce landscape quite literally grounds him. It grounds Jesus out in the wilds; grounds him, in effect, beyond culture or class, in time and yet somehow beyond it; far-flung from the usual diversions by which we seek to transcend the distances of 2000 years and some 6000 miles. The evangelist Luke puts him there, on the margins, that we might see this Second Adam in quintessential struggle of identity: teasing out relationship and living into vocation. As with the psalmist whose moisture was “all dried up as by the heat of summer” (Psalm 32:4), so Jesus enters the time of his Testing with Jordan waters but a distant memory, the voice of God’s pleasure likely to be only a slight stirring amid groans of hunger and thirst. (Remember, Jesus is famished.) Trust will be all in all as the Tempter presses Jesus to exploit his equality with God (Philippians 2:6).
Famished. Hollowed out. Empty. That’s what Jesus is when challenged:
“Turn those stones to bread and satisfy your hunger!”
“Let angels bear you up!”
“Claim the kingdoms of this world and all their store!”
It is tempting, indeed! The lures of the world, easy satisfactions… But, remember the wilderness! The wilderness has stripped away more than food and drink, more than comfort and security. Laying waste all illusions, emptying him of all he does not need, Jesus has been drawn to his truest self—his deep hungers fed by God’s word in nurture, companionship, and strength that satisfies more than momentary fixes of food or fortune ever will. And thus, in touch with his truest self Jesus counters devilish words with deep trust. Over and again, the Tempter presses, “If you are the Son of God…” And yet it is because, it is because he is God’s Beloved that Jesus will live by (and even live as) the word that comes from God’s mouth, worshiping and serving only God, not putting the Lord to the test. Indeed, Jesus’ answer, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test”, effectively becomes a cry. “Away with you!” he seems to say. And thus the Test is ended. Luke says “The Devil retreated temporarily, lying in wait for another opportunity” (The Message, Luke 4:13).
Each year the church’s Lenten journey begins with this narrative accompaniment to Jesus’ wilderness testing. And while we have scrubbed them from sight, still it is with ash-smudged foreheads that we link ourselves all Lent long. We link ourselves to Source and End: the dust we are, God’s very own. Turning and returning, we walk a pilgrim way—rarely as contemplative or purgative as with a forty day fast, but carving out such patterns of discipline as will take us deeper into the Word, feeding us with more than bread for bellies’ cravings. Like Jesus out in the wilds, in our forty days we open spaces; we open spaces within our hearts. In what we give up and let go of in Lent, we trim away the excesses as best we can so as to walk a road less burdened. It is a narrow way, a road that leads to awesome mystery: God’s Own for the world, given in love.
All the while, “The brutality of the cross casts a long shadow over Lent…” So says a spiritual companion to my Lenten journey this year. By this, Jan Richardson means to acknowledge the starkness of the season and the difficulty one sometimes has in learning to see the “beauty present in its starkness and the secrets in its terrain.”
Yet, she says, “Lent is a season that invites us to explore its hollows and, in so doing, to explore our own, to enter the sometimes stark spaces in our souls that we may prefer to avoid. The season challenges us to think of our own lives as vessels, to contemplate the cracks, to rub our fingers over the worn places, to ponder whether we are feeling full or empty, to question what we open ourselves to. [Lent] beckons us to ponder what we have shaped—or bent—our lives around, whether the shape of the container of our life offers freedom or confinement, and whether it opens us to the possibility of new life to which the empty tomb points” (Richardson, Garden of Hollows, 1).
Of course, what constitutes the stark spaces of wilderness will be different for each of us. Still, we should be clear: the landscape of our pilgrimage need not be that of a thirsty land. Topography is not the key.
• No, for us, the wild terrain might just as well be made of our horror in the face of natural disaster such as we witness in Haiti’s rubble, the painful truths of human tragedy blowing hard against us like strong, hot winds.
• The sands – they could be of loneliness or despair. The great gulf of distance separating many of us from families and friends “back home,” or the pain of separation right here in Boston when our relationships break apart and we are set on paths of our future once more alone.
• The night’s bitter cold? It may come through poverty… or plenty, from overwork or lack of work, from fatigue or even failure. Even as the day’s heat might scorch because one feels misunderstood or maligned…or because one has burdened another with the same.
The point here is not so much the how but rather the what. The point is the “what” of an opening: of openings to metaphorical landscapes and their contours, openings to companions on our journeys. The point lies in openings to the emptiness of bellies and hearts and tables…the emptiness of our own solutions and self-satisfactions.
Friends, following the Spirit’s lead into wild places, often amounts to little other than opening ourselves to the sometimes painful places of life. And God knows, there are plenty of those places in a world such as ours.
Tuesday’s New York Times front page story above the fold opened with the question: “Will anyone remember that 17-year-old Angelania Ritchelle, a parentless high school student who wanted to be a fashion model, died of fright two days after the earthquake and ended up in a mass grave on the outskirts of [Port-au-Prince]?” Will anyone remember? Tha
t was the question 23 year old Emmanuella was asking as she grieved her young cousin’s death, noting that Angie “is just one of the nameless, faceless victims.” Wrenchingly, poignantly, she added, “And I hate that.”
To date, the quake is said to have killed 230,000 people. That seems to me to be a number incomprehensible to most of us, eh? To put it in some perspective, though, it is roughly equal to all the students attending every one of the 77 colleges and universities in metropolitan Boston. In other terms, it’s about 37% of the total population of our neighbors to the north in the great state of Vermont. 230,000 lives: and most of them buried unknown, without memorials. This quake has been called “an equal opportunity leveler with such mass deadliness that it erased the individuality of its victims.” Ah yes, there’s plenty of pain in the wild spaces to which we might open ourselves this season.
And still closer to home, we must know as well that aftershocks continue wreaking devastation among our Haitian neighbors. Our city is the third largest Haitian community in the United States. And Boston is trying to respond to the needs of the thousands here whose families back home struggle to stand in the aftermath of the quake. One such remarkable response to those needs is a concert to be held this Friday at the Cathedral Church of St. Paul, downtown, adjacent to the Park Street T stop. At 7:30 on Friday evening they will host an effort spearheaded by many of our students called “Singing in the Aftermath.” Singing in the Aftermath: it’s a concert for Haiti with the Greater Boston Haitian Community. Financial contributions gathered there will support the extraordinary relief work of Partners in Health, while canned goods collected will restock empty shelves in local food pantries. A nice discipline to add to Lent’s rounds.
Of course, attending to the suffering of Haiti is only one way to open ourselves to the painful places of life. Surely, right here—even within our very selves—here also are great griefs to bear as each of us fails to live “as intended;” whether those disappointments come in coursework or relationships, in our jobs or by lack of living from our own core values. The reality is, we all fail. We all have broken places. Painful places.
But here is one of Lent’s gifts. It seems to me that this is a season that can bear the stark landscapes. The point is that we should not turn away from failings, from the broken in or around us. Indeed, the reality of our struggles – both outward and inward, both globally and locally – the reality of our struggles is part and parcel of why Lent stands to offer us more than just challenges to our willpower. Going into the wild places on a Lenten pilgrimage asks us, more deeply, to explore the very marrow of our being. As it did with Jesus in his forty days apart, Lent stretches before us pressing us to look at what ultimately satisfies, what gives us strength, what holds us safe.
Just so, however and wherever we find ourselves as we walk the ‘pilgrim way of Lent,’ I pray each of us finds what we need to face the fierce landscapes. In the emptying and refilling, in the turning and returning, may God’s own Holy Spirit among us be Energy for Life. May it lead us to the places we need to go, and strengthen us for all the testing ahead. Throughout, may the Lenten desert landscape be seen less as a place of temptation and more as a kind of proving ground, a place where emptying creates room enough to receive all God offers us. Thus, as with the One who has gone ahead of us—Jesus our brother with whose cross we have been signed—thus we would come through these forty days to ever-deeper understandings of who we are and how graciously God provides all that we need: grace upon grace upon grace.
Dear friends, companions on the way, traveling mercies I bid you. May we all keep a holy Lent out in the wilds! Amen.
University Chaplain for Lutheran Students