Temptation in the Wilderness

by Sr Ann Swailes

The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan, and he was with the wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him.

For those of us who still haven’t quite decided on our Lenten penance, we could do worse than follow the suggestion of the Revd. Alan Franks, vicar of Ambridge, who, in last Sunday’s episode of the Archers, I’m reliably informed, encouraged his parishioners to give up complaining for the next forty days and forty nights.  It is good advice. However, I’m going to ignore it, and begin this reflection with a complaint,

a complaint directed against the editors of the New English Hymnal of all people. The hymn we have just sung, probably the best known of all English Lenten hymns, has here been very slightly adapted from the original version, in which the third verse peaks of our being, not as we have just heard, “strong” in suffering pain with the Lord, but “glad”:

Shall we not thy watchings share/and from earthly joys abstain;/with thee fasting unto prayer/glad with thee to suffer pain.

Now, it is entirely understandable why the editors felt a bit queasy about all that. Taken out of context, the idea of being “glad” to suffer with Jesus is a terrible one, truly pathological in fact, suggesting that the more we suffer, the better Christians we shall be, because the more like we will be to the Lord in his temptations, passion and death. Such a teaching is a wicked, dangerously seductive travesty, and it is one that has sadly disfigured Christian history in not a few places. So all credit to the hymnbook editors for trying to root it out. The trouble is that speaking of our being “strong” to suffer pain is, I think, in important ways no better. It suggests something which is also very seductive, perhaps especially at this time of year: the idea that the way of Christian discipleship is a kind of army assault course, a rigorous, punishing training regime in which the stronger we are, the more we achieve, the better Christians we will be. Now it is of course true that our tradition, again especially at this time of year, does make powerful use of such military metaphors. One version of the collect for Ash Wednesday, for instance, speaks of the self-denial of Lent as “our Christian warfare”. In Holy Week, we shall sing of the Passion of Christ as the “last great battle”. But the point about such language is that it is, precisely metaphorical, paradoxical, almost indeed ironic, drawing attention to the strangeness of this warfare and the weapons with which it is fought. Jesus in his Passion is not victorious through superior firepower, and his victory on the Cross, to all but the eyes of faith, looks like sheer defeat. Our tradition tells us that he stumbles on the way to Calvary, is grateful for the assistance of Simon of Cyrene in carrying his cross, grateful for the unspeakable tenderness of a woman wiping his face as he labours towards the place of execution. He conquers death by dying. If our Lenten discipline is supposed to make us more Christlike, as surely it is, it cannot possibly be about grim, gritted teeth resilience. We must be content to carry our cross in weakness, as Our Lord did, not seek to outdo him in strength.

The short passage we have heard this evening from the Gospel of St Mark perhaps gives us a way into thinking about Lent that neither bestows a sickly glamour on pain, nor suggests that might is right and frailty somehow despicable.

Although Jesus is here in the desert, in solitude, he is not, in fact, alone. He is not alone, because he has taken us there with him. The temptation of Jesus occurs immediately after his baptism in the Jordan. And he undergoes that baptism not for his own sake, but for ours. It is in solidarity with the crowd seeking the way home to God who throng the riverbank that Jesus goes down into the waters, and the voice that speaks from the cloud as he emerges, identifying him as the Beloved of the Father ratifies that solidarity, that unity. We too can hear the voice of the Father claiming us as his beloved children precisely because the Son has come into the world, not merely to teach us, nor merely to observe or sympathise with us as one other than us, but to identify with us, to become one of us, to unite us to himself through baptism, as members of this body, sharing his very life, breathing with his breath. There is a sense then in which the sufferings of Christ, beginning with his temptations, are our sufferings, and ours his. For that very reason, it is fitting that St Mark does not tell us in what the trial awaiting Jesus in the wilderness consists. There is nothing here, in the oldest account we have, so the scripture scholars tell us, about turning stones into bread, nothing about the parapet of the temple, nothing about the adulation of the world. All those details, familiar from the other gospels, are missing. We are not told at all how it was the devil tested the Lord, simply that it was so. He was in the wilderness 40 days, tempted by Satan.

St Mark’s eloquent vagueness here is important – and comforting – because it suggests that there is no trial that we might be called upon to undergo that is alien to Jesus, nothing that cannot be taken up into his great and saving struggle. It is not merely that we can seek in Jesus a role model to follow in the times of pain and misery and testing that may come our way. Rather, he undergoes all these things in us, strengthening us from within to bear them, but to bear them as he bears pain, not in unflinching stony-heartedness, but in passionate vulnerable love for all our fellow sufferers. It is for this reason alone, and only in this sense, that we can dare to say that we are glad with him to suffer pain. Not, in other words, glad to suffer: that would be a deeply odd and unhealthy way to try to be disciples of the one who comes to heal our infirmities and lead us to abundant life – but glad and grateful that we do not suffer alone. Glad, too, that because we are united with Christ, our sufferings are one with the Passion that saved the world. They have a meaning, and therefore we have a dignity, that we could never have dreamed.

And a final thought. The place where Jesus takes us, year on year, at the beginning of Lent, the desert into which the Spirit drives us with Jesus, is both the haunt of the wild beasts, and the abode of angels. What does this tell us about how most fruitfully to keep Lent?

For most of us, I guess, this year as every year, a prominent part of our Lenten project will be giving up: renouncing something in which we normally take perfectly legitimate pleasure: booze, chocolate, Facebook, whatever.

It would be a gross exaggeration, and an insult to those in our world who experience real poverty and deprivation, not voluntarily for a few short weeks but of necessity throughout their lives, to refer to these token self-imposed penances as a source of suffering. But the point of such Lenten discipline of course is to clear away something of the habitual clutter of our lives, to empty out the space we routinely fill with God’s good gifts, and thus make room for God himself. And a side effect of this spiritual spring-cleaning is that we meet, not only God, but ourselves in the wilderness of Lent. And this can cause us real pain, real suffering. With our day to day distractions removed, our escape routes from ourselves sealed off, we are brought face to face with our weakness, for sure, but also with the chaos, even the violence, of our inner landscape, where anger, jealousy, fears, obsessions can tear at our peace of mind like savage predatory animals.

Here it can be helpful to remember another landscape the Bible shows us populated with wild beasts. It’s an image we associate, perhaps, more with Advent than with Lent: the prophet Isaiah’s great vision of the coming reign of God where the lamb and the lion, the ox and the bear live together peaceably, and the toddler explores the lair of the poisonous snake and takes no harm. We read this wonderful passage in Advent, precisely because the Church sees in it an allusion to the coming of Christ, the prince of peace, the one who comes to heal the toxic wounds we inflict on ourselves and each other, so that we can live in the harmony which is God’s will for all his creation. Perhaps if we truly allow Christ, this Lent, to be with us as we confront those impulses in our hearts and minds that scar us, truly with the wild beasts that prowl around the dark places of our hearts and minds, we shall find that peaceable Kingdom established little by little in us. And, if we allow ourselves to help each other on this journey through the desert, by prayer, by acts of forgiveness, by simple companionship, we may find that God gives us the great privilege of being his messengers, ministering like angels to our brothers and sisters.

The desert into which we are driven with Jesus is for us, as it was for him, not the end but the beginning of the story, and we must be under no illusions about what this means. If he has indeed taken us with him from the Jordan into the wilderness, we may be sure that he will take us with him all the way he means to go for us and for our salvation. This will mean walking in and with him on the way of the Cross, sure in the knowledge that it will lead us, as it led him, to the garden at sunrise on the first day of the week, the first day of the new creation. As the hymn puts it: Keep oh keep us Saviour dear/ever constant by thy side/that with thee we may appear/at the eternal Eastertide.

 

Amen. 

To Praise, To Bless, To Preach.