After much reflection and research, I purchased a lovely two-volume set of “Revised Office Readings” in preparation for 2019. There are various lectionaries (or collections/lists of scripture readings appointed for any given day of the year) and I have found them useful both in deciding what to read, and in keeping my life tethered to the Church calendar and to a wider body of Christians around the world.
Revised Office Readings follows the daily office lectionary of the Book of Common Prayer, and the volumes are aesthetically satisfying. Incidentally, I’m finding that the latter is an often overlooked consideration in why people may or may not engage with the Bible. I both anticipate and enjoy the Revised Office Readings each day I read them. If you’re unmotivated and bored when it comes to the Bible, the chances are that you’re finding (at least) the visual, sensory, and typographical appeal lacking. Don’t be fooled by the modern, sadly familiar religious ruse which excommunicates form from content. A Christian bumper sticker will always be a pretty dumb way to nourish real spiritual awareness. Further, “In such ugly times, the only true protest is beauty.”
Anyway, today’s reading (Year One, 1 Epiphany, Monday) is the gorgeous passage in the gospel of Mark in which Jesus is baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan River. As he comes out of the water, the Spirit descends upon him like a dove and he hears a voice from heaven saying “You are my son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” There are few words people crave more.
The passage is one that I have preached, one with which I have prayed, and ultimately one that conveys the basic Christian message (aka the gospel): that the heart of God is that of a father bursting with unconditional affection and approval, and that this is the only real ground of human identity and flourishing.
And yet it was these verses following the Baptism which arrested me this afternoon:
And the Spirit immediately drove him [Jesus] out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him (Mark 1:12-13).
I recognize that some Christians parade success as the hallmark of authentic faith. A perusal of televangelism, for example, may lead you to think that being a Christian is a one-way ticket to bulging finances and a happy avoidance of suffering. How dreamy. Scripture and indeed experience show these sentiments as nothing more than a pipe dream. I think that’s an appropriate phrase, because you’d have to be smoking something to think this puff of nonsense represented anything close to the life and teachings of Jesus.
A few thoughts on today’s reading:
- Sometimes, God drives you into the wilderness (a metaphor for suffering or hardship). Even saying “drives” is a little anemic; the original connotation of the word means something more like an irresistible forcing or “throwing.” More importantly, the wilderness is not an abandonment or punishment of God, but a work of God (read: the televangelists are wrong!).
- God has an appointed duration for whatever wilderness he leads you into (“40 days” – not necessarily literal, of course). Of all places, remember there is purpose and intention here. It’s easy and understandable to be preoccupied with the difficulties of the wilderness; the spiritual invitation is to look deeper and to discern and trust in God amidst and often despite the circumstances. Christians call this kind of looking “faith.”
- The wilderness is a place of temptation. I don’t mean strictly moral temptation, though questionable thinking and behaviour has an especially uncanny attraction and supposed legitimacy in seasons of pain – beware! I mean “temptation” more in terms of the experience of voices within and without naysaying the very things that you once took for granted and actually experienced. The ultimate wilderness temptation is some hopeless combination of doubting who you are, who others are, what life is or is going to be like, and who or where God is. In other words, it’s no accident that Jesus was aglow with overtures of belonging, affection, and approval from heaven in the Jordan and was then interrogated about these very things in the wilderness (“If you are the Son of God, then…”). As St. Ignatius counsels, trust and ingrain your experience in consolation so that you can revisit it when you’re in desolation.
- Realities of harm – and the prospects of it – become all the more palpable in the wilderness. It’s as if you have been watching a pride of lions from a viewing pavilion at the zoo only to have fallen into their enclosure (an overzealous selfie?). The wilderness is an experience of fear becoming undomesticated. Welcome to the terrain of preying what-if and could-bes, where options and choices appear to dwindle. Even more, welcome to the place where you feel misunderstood and alone.
- Of all places, the wilderness seems to be the most God-forsaken. And yet there is nowhere in which God is absent. “God is an infinite circle whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” The wilderness, paradoxically, evaporates everything but God. This is why people often have the most profound spiritual experiences here, because only here does everything else – save for the presence of God – show itself to be a mirage. In fact, the Christian tradition values the wilderness as a sacred space; entertained by angels. I have found this to be true.
By the way, did I mention I am entering the wilderness? More on that later.