Photo taken by me, in the Judean Desert
Lent begins where it will end at the Easter Vigil: with the waters of Holy Baptism. In Mark's Gospel—which includes no birth narrative—we are simply introduced to Jesus, who “in those days...came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan." (Mark 1:9) Suddenly the heavens open and the Voice says: “you are my beloved, with you I am well pleased.”
I think about that Voice: the same Voice that ordered the chaos at creation and called all creatures great and small 'good.' The Voice that called Abraham and Sarah to journey to a new land and that Moses heard at the burning bush. The Voice that called prophets and priests now claims Jesus: “You are my beloved."
Mark’s Gospel is sparser on details than the other three. There is in it a sense of immediacy and urgency that shuns details. So we don’t get the specifics about Jesus’ wilderness experience. There are no temples he is tempted to jump from. He is not promised the kingdoms of the world or invited to turn rocks into bread. We are simply told that he was tested in the Judean Desert; that he faced a time of trial. With or without details, this is a reminder that Jesus was like us in every way, save sin. To be tested is to face the possibility of choosing otherwise. Jesus resists Satan but he, like us, was free to have chosen otherwise. If we lose that detail of his utter humanity then we fail to grasp who Jesus truly is.
In this sparse gospel, there is one word about Jesus’ time in the wilderness that we must not miss. In Matthew and Luke we are told that the Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness. In Mark, however, Jesus is driven there. He is pushed. That suggests at least some level of resistance on his part—which again invites us to confront him in his full humanity. This time of trial—this period of testing—comes right on the heels of his Baptism. It is as if to say that the wilderness is where all is stripped away so that only the Voice remains: “You are my beloved.” All else is exposed as deception and distortion. That is the only truth in Jesus life—in spite of what the Tempter and others will say about him and project upon him.Only after Jesus completes his time in the wilderness does he begin his public ministry, proclaiming in word and deed the good news of the Reign of God.
Baptism, testing, proclamation. This pattern isn’t only about Jesus. It represents our journeys as well, we who have been called to follow him, to see his life as pattern and pathway to God. Substitute your own name for that of Jesus, or the name of your faith community or the words "one holy, catholic and apostolic church” and you get a picture of what ministry looks like even in changing contexts. We, too, have been claimed and marked and sealed in Holy Baptism. We, too, are God’s beloved. The Voice has claimed us in love and sealed and marked us as Christ's own forever. We are called to go and share that good news, sometimes even with words.
The waters of Baptism do not provide us with an inoculation against struggle. In fact, this pattern of wilderness and testing is as central to people of faith as God’s love is. We are not driven or led into the wilderness as a punishment. We are driven (or led) into the wilderness because that is where we discover for ourselves what matters—who we really are and what we are called to do with these wild and precious lives of ours. It's where we learn to trust that Voice over and against all others that try to tell us who we are. Over the course of forty years, God’s people were transformed from a band of ex-slaves into a chosen people with a mission. After the exile, Isaiah announced the construction of a highway in the desert—a way home through the wilderness. Powerful things happen in the desert!
Jesus goes into the wilderness not only to be tested but to clarify what kind of messiah he is called to be. The desert mothers and fathers in the history of the Christian church who likewise went out into the desert did so in order to find faith. What happens to us when we begin to see Lent as a time to do the same: not as a time for guilt or punishment or shame but as an opportunity to be with the wild beasts and to be ministered to by angels, in order to encounter the living God again?
The wilderness is a place that ushers in a more authentic humility and a deeper awareness of our creatureliness. Remember that you are dust. It can lead us to a a deeper awareness of our dependence upon God alone and an embrace of our interdependence with our neighbor. The desert therefore teaches us a radically counter-cultural way to live in a world that says "you control your destiny" - take care of yourself!
Prayer, fasting, study of Scripture, and focus on the needs of the poor are some of the practices that show us the way forward, and remind us that we truly are God's beloved. Blessings as this season unfolds!