40 days to wander

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So we’ve just celebrated the first Sunday of Lent, and I’ve had the chance to meditate more on Sunday’s gospel, on Jesus’ 40 days in the desert. Thanks also to the wisdom of our priest, Monsignor Torgerson,  I was pushed further along the road to understanding the reading than what my discussion with the 12-year olds had involved. “It strikes me”, said Monsignor, “that what happened to Jesus in the desert – the temptations of Satan – had everything to do with what happened to him in the Jordan River. John at first refuses to baptise his cousin, saying he was unworthy to even do up the strap of Jesus’ sandal. But Jesus insists, choosing to take on every aspect of our humanity, including the need to be washed in the waters of redemption. Then the heavens open, and a voice says – “You are my Son, the Beloved. My favour rests on you.” It is only after this that Jesus goes into the desert – not just to be tempted, as we tend to think of it, but to prepare for his ministry. When Satan comes to Jesus, each time he starts his temptations with “IF you are the Son of God…”. But Jesus has nothing to prove. He knows he is the Son of God, just as we should know we are the children of God. So when Satan comes to us with temptations, we can echo Christ and say, “I shall not put the Lord God to the test…because I trust in His love.”

Joshua Tree is a U.S. National Park that includes both the Mojave and Colorado deserts. It is named for the Joshua trees that cover its open spaces, strangely shaped plants that reminded the 19th century Mormons settlers who crossed the desert of the prophet Joshua raising his arms in prayer. On a hot dry day in August it is particularly inhospitable. Signs as we drive into the park warn of extreme fire risks, and the sun beats down at us, heat emanating from the surface too as we make our way down the first trail of the day. The silence in the desert is astounding. There is no car on the roads as far as we can see, and nobody on the trail, either. Desert animals are mostly silent, conserving their energy in the heat. Aside from the quick rustle of a lizard flicking under a bush, or the whirr of a bird pouncing on a rare insect, the only sound we hear is that of our own footsteps. Clambering to the top of a rock stack, I look out over the expanse of the desert. It is still, silent, and overwhelming. Later we would come across cave paintings, vandalised by more contemporary travellers, and the remnants of a gold mine, its parts visible but decaying. The desert is not as empty as it looks, filled with human history and hiding on and between its boulders and peaks a myriad of other living creatures. Yet that night, lying on our backs staring at the stars, its vastness and seeming emptiness again enfolded us.

For those of us used to being busy answering to demands of things to do and people to attend to, the stillness of the desert is shocking. But it is that which makes it the perfect place to discover ourselves. Without the noise and distractions of our daily lives to hide behind, we have no choice but to face ourselves. Was this true for Jesus too? Quite possibly. As the only son of a widowed mother and a carpenter, he’d have had plenty to busy himself with at home. Called to the River Jordan for baptism, then driven to the desert to fast and pray, he stepped into his new life, with possibly the strongest sense of his mission he’d had thus far. I love Matt Maher’s depiction of Jesus’ temptation in the desert, towards the end of 40 days, as an alternate version of himself. How true is it that often it is our less noble selves who, after we’ve experienced a time of hardship, offer the easy option out, play on doubts, crave to be worshipped over God? It could be that Satan, not being omniscient (how often we forget that!), is trying to work out if Jesus truly is the Messiah. Jesus successfully resisting his three temptations proves he is the chosen one, and Satan leaves Jesus of his own volition. I pray this Lent that, using this time in the desert the Church marks out for us, praying, fasting, and giving alms, we remember that in response to the temptations that cross our path, we know that we are the beloved, with the favour of God. That itself should go a good way to scaring the Tempter back to where he came from!

Being human, though, means we do doubt. Like my 12-year olds had realised, faith is required from us in vast quantities – in sometimes unreasonable quantities. And sometimes we meet that challenge, and sometimes we don’t. I don’t claim to have the answer, but I have found that holding on, sometimes just till I can next talk to someone, makes all the difference. And like in the Gospel, angels (in their guises as friends, family, priest, stranger, blog-writer) come and minister to me. Let’s live Lent with the knowledge that we may be bound and broken – but that at the end of it all, there is the Resurrection.

Forty days to wander
Forty days to die to self
Forty days to grow stronger
As faith breaks open the gates of hell…

…’Cause in the desert of temptation
Lies the storm of true conversion
Where springs of living water drown and refresh you
And as the Jordan pours out change
Your true self is all that remains
Where springs of living water bind and break you
Bind and break you

Matt Maher, Forty Days

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