The Reverend Dr James Hawkey, Minor Canon and Precentor
In this morning's gospel we hear what sounds like a rather truncated version of a familiar story. Where, we might ask, is the line about stones into bread, and man not living by bread alone? Where is the figure of Satan offering to give Jesus all the kingdoms of this world, as if they were ever his to give? Mark's Gospel, almost certainly the earliest account, either does not know of these precise traditions or in his hurry to get into the meat of the kerygma, the preaching of the Good News and the proclamation of the kingdom, he simply ignores them. Here, we have baptism, temptation and proclamation rolled into six neat verses!
But, the speed of this whole passage is perhaps not just a literary device. There is an absolutely fascinating textual uniqueness in Mark's version of the story; the original text tells us that Jesus was 'immediately' propelled, not quite; thrown, getting there; thrown against his will, that's the closest we'll get, into the wilderness by the Spirit. Certainly in the way the lectionary arranges today's Gospel it is as if the temptation of Jesus is as fundamental to his identity and his mission as his baptism, and his proclamation of the kingdom. In today's reading it is the hinge between the two, and what a fascinating hinge it is.
The proximity of the temptation story to that of Jesus's baptism makes me wonder whether or not this brief Marcan story of two verses is actually primarily about revelation—that is to say it's about revealing who this Jesus actually is, in a similar way to his baptism effectively revealing who he really is. In a sense this is about the revelation, the theophany, of Christ's glory—the angels, we are told, serve him in the desert, because he is the Beloved, the one in whom the Father is well-pleased. But if this story is about revelation, we see in the opening verses of Mark's Gospel his first example of what one modern writer has called the 'dizzying mystery of divine descent' of God's kenosis, God pouring himself out for us, taking the form of a servant, becoming fully like us in everything except sin. And in this, perhaps we begin to understand why Mark says that Jesus was driven out into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit: because it was precisely this kind of dislocation which Jesus had to know in order to be fully human, and which he needed to undergo before he proclaimed the Good News.
If you have ever travelled to the Judean desert, you will know something of its topography. It is not so much sand as rock, its wild expanse open and bare. Even in the twenty-first century there is something forbidding and fascinating about the desert in almost equal measure. It is a place of dislocation; of heat and silence; of beauty and terror; of solitude, and yet of the unavoidable presence of the vast and untameable energy which speaks of a power infinitely beyond ourselves. For the Jews of Jesus's day the desert resonated in very specific ways—firstly, and fundamentally, it was the place of journey; it was the site of where—all those many years before, during and after the Exodus from Egypt—they had learnt (often the hard way) their own need of the Lord. It was where they had learnt the fundamental truth at the heart of their own covenant relationship with Yahweh, and that relationship's testing and honing over many years of nomadic life, disaster, and hope, that the hand which feeds you will ultimately be the hand which owns you. This is the journey in the wilderness from the idol to the icon—what do you worship? What do you rely on? What feeds your imagination, your inspiration? In the wilderness journey of the Exodus, the tribes of Israel learnt again the faithfulness of Abraham, Noah, and Moses: a journey from idolatry to iconicity.
It was perhaps for reasons related to some of this, that the earliest Christian monks sought their solitude in the desert, often in parts of the Middle and Near East now known to us through the reporting of the evil savagery of Da'esh, or ISIL. In the early centuries of the Church, hundreds of monasteries sprang up in the deserts of Egypt, Syria, and Iraq. Some of those early monks were fleeing the decadence of the later Roman empire; others simply sought solitude for their lives of devotion and reflection. The sayings of some of these early desert monks have been collected and edited in various editions and are famous for their practical wisdom and spiritual maturity. In one such modern edition, the editor makes a fascinating claim. The Desert, he writes, produced healers, not thinkers. By this, he perhaps means that life in the wilderness—especially a life of prayer and self-discipline—cannot bear fruit principally through any intellectual exercise, but simply by the radical conversion of the heart. Thus, the kind of discipleship schooled by life in the desert is open to people of any background, ability, or situation. One cannot master the desert; rather, through its vast extremities, it is a place where humans can learn once again their own fundamental need of God, and the overwhelming power of his grace, of his covenant.
For each of us, as we begin another Lent, the journey into the desert will mean many and different things. It can be a physical journey, as we embark upon a retreat or a pattern of changes to our daily lives, or it can be a series of metaphorical journeys (some of which we may feel compelled to make despite our more reasoned judgement—we might feel driven into it against our will). But the will must be mastered and put again at the service of Christ. However we do it, the Spirit prompts each and every one of us to move into the desert as we prepare to celebrate again the mystery of Christ's death and resurrection. People often give things up—the emptiness of a drinks cabinet or a biscuit tin can be helpful as long as it doesn't become a thing: an end in itself which we idolise, rather than remind us of the fundamental bits of our survival. A greater commitment to charity of both heart and wallet is also a good Lenten journey. But maybe the most important is the conversion of our inner lives.
The journey of self-examination often leads us into the desert. Now it's important to say here that this is not the same as introspection; in fact it is precisely not to see yourself as the centre of the universe! In a small, rather old-fashioned prayer book I had as a child there was a prayer which I still use in self-examination as part of the preparation before making my confession. It reads, simply, 'help me to know the state of my life in thy sight.' At first sight, this is a terrifying thing. Can I bare to see my own life as God—the source of perfect truth, love and beauty—sees it? Dare I open myself to that kind of discernment, that kind of judgement? The answer is not only that we can do it, but that we must. We must take ourselves out into the wilderness to learn that it is precisely in our simple, unadorned, created beauty that the Lord rejoices. The real danger of sin, in terms of how we view ourselves, can perhaps be summarised crudely by two equally false statements: either 1) I am everything; or 2) I am nothing. It is in our unadorned created beauty that the Lord rejoices.
This isn't a thing of great human sophistry, because the desert is a place of healing: where the false images of ourselves and the world around us can dissolve, the place where idols are smashed, but where water pours out of stony rocks: the place where angels wait on Christ, and from which he summons us to share in his death and mighty resurrection, as we share his mission. What he says to us, let us take to heart, 'Repent and believe in the Good News.'