Lent is a season of certainties and mysteries. The great certainty of God’s unending love for us expressed in the passion of Jesus for us all; and the mystery of where suffering love finds us and takes us. (Lent One. Matthew 4:1-11; Genesis 2:15-17,3:1-7; Psalm 32; Romans 5:12-21.) Lent invites us to engage at least at three levels with the story: to hear again the unfolding story of God’s inexhaustible love reaching out for humanity, indeed all creation (what is sometimes called salvation history in the church); to not only hear again but to companion Christ on his journey from being declared the Beloved, to the wilderness, to Jerusalem and the garden of Gethsemane, to the cross, to the tomb and to resurrection morn (the journey of the soul); and to find in our self our own unfolding story of knowing our self both beloved and given over to wilderness struggle and passionate self emptying love.
So, we begin with the overarching story of God’s unfolding love for us. We have in the Genesis story of what we have come to call the fall, and in the gospel story of Jesus being driven into the wilderness, mirror images of one another. Our spiritual forebears, first man and first woman, were driven out of the garden into the harsh world we inhabit. And Jesus is driven by the Spirit into the harsh wilderness to be tempted by the devil. We were driven there as a consequence of our decision to want to know for ourselves good and evil. And Jesus comes into this place as one of us and for us so that God might find us in the most barren and unlikely of places. Wilderness, suffering, unimportance does not make us invisible to God and this we will find is good news.
St Paul expresses it as sin and death coming into our life through one man, Adam, and life and grace coming into the world through one man, Jesus Christ. What the church dryly calls salvation history we might understand as the divine circle of love that sweeps across our history and around our lives so that we might once again know ourselves in the embrace of God. The circle which begins in the simple place of the garden before our expulsion into our lives of struggle into which Jesus, God enfleshed, joins us in the barren and ordinary places so that we may be gathered up and included once more in the embrace of grace.
I think it is a powerful and telling image that Jesus begins his journey to Jerusalem from the experience of baptism and being declared Beloved and then straight into the wilderness. He is not declared beloved as a reward for having prevailed rather he is able to prevail because he is beloved. Neither is his wilderness experience a test of his belovedness. For it is the sprit who drives him there to be tempted by the devil. Do you too hear that it is the will of the spirit of God that Jesus should need to struggle and be tempted. Some might read that as a moral test to which Jesus gets the tick of approval. Rather I hear that as a tempering of his full humanity and full divinity just as precious metal must be tempered: that the process of wilderness, struggle, and preparation were all essential to the making of Jesus the messiah. That is, even the holy one, does not come to full humanity without a deep wrestling with who we are and what we are – a tempering of our character and call in the inner wilderness of competing demands and possibilities.
Sometimes we read his exchange with the devil as a trite question-and-answer with a snappy repartee between the devil and Jesus. But forty days and nights indicates that this was a holy time of struggle, discernment, and transition to a new order of being. Remember those other biblical forties – the great flood, the years in the wilderness on the way to the Promised Land – all times of being lost and of finding, of being at the point of giving up and of needing to stay faithful to find the new land.
And this is the journey into which we are invited. We are invited into the experience of knowing ourselves as those who have eaten the fruit that initiates us into the complexity, struggle and fullness of life beyond the garden where all was given and nothing was asked. Whether we see the story of the fall as a sad and avoidable tragedy, or whether we see it as an inevitable stage of human development, it is an accurate reflection of what happens for all of us. That at some point we are no longer innocent and amoral but we become aware of good and evil, capable of choice, and then our struggle to become fully ourselves truly begins.
And like the spirit driving Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted God wants us to join in the process through which we will come into our fullness of humanity and become the divine sons and daughters we are destined to be. Most of the struggles worth engaging in are of the forty day variety. This “fullness of humanity” business is the work of grace and effort; of absolute failure and success; of growth and brokenness; of pain and joy - the fruit of divine gift and human sweat and tears.
Most of us, by this stage of life, know something about the forty day process. We know how inevitable it is. We know how important it is to stay the distance. Even though we know so well the temptation to give up half way through because at some point the process becomes so unsettling, or exhausting, or confusing that we would rather stay with what we think we know than risk the growth and change that the process can bring.
The advantage, such as it is, of going through the Lenten process together, is that while we will each no doubt be struggling with slightly different things we know that we in our humanity each have old and new failures to repent of, old and new stories to listen to more deeply and then hand over to the one great story, and old and new wisdoms to allow to surface in the silent places of our inner wilderness. We cannot do this work for each other but we can hold the Christ light for one another, we can hold one another in prayer, we can travel in companionable silence or conversation until the process finished we see the Easter morn together.
So let us take the time to journey into the wilderness with Christ there to be lost, bored, inspired, afraid, hopeful – eventually to know only God’s uncompromising desire for us and to find the beginnings of our desire for God and for life as God desires it for us. Even so, come Lord Jesus Christ, come take us on the journey of our life.
You may also like to read what I wrote three years ago for Lent One.