Mark 1: 9-15 †††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††
The passionate life meets the wilderness. I donít think there is any way to avoid it. A life lived passionately - that is to say, true to yourself and true to God - will eventually experience the wilderness.
When we read this short passage of Mark, it seems as if Jesus' baptism, his affirmation from God and wilderness wanderings all happen in one afternoon. But as we examine this condensed version, we see a pattern of spiritual development that covers a lifetime. In that sense, this story is an archetypal story, relaying more than simply a personal event, but also a common human event of the soul.
The story of Jesus' baptism and wilderness experience contains three elements that appear to be universal in the soul's journey with God:
1. A Baptism of God's grace
2. A Holy Affirmation
3. The Wilderness
Having just said these three elements are universal, let me also say that not all of us read our lives as a spiritual map. We may be hard pressed to illustrate what have been moments of grace and moments of wilderness, let alone to tell someone where we are on the journey today - phase one, two, or three. But whether we reflect often or seldom on our life as a spiritual journey, I believe most people, on reflection, could identify with various experiences we go through as our heart yearns for God.
Let me also say that not only are these three events - baptism, affirmation, and wilderness - phases that happen over a lifetime, but they are cyclical in nature. As soon as we make it through a wilderness period, we are likely to know the ministry of angels and return to a baptism of God's grace, which then leads to another wilderness experience of sorts. Our direction is ultimately toward God and grace and love.
So what are these three stages?
1. Baptism. Just as Jesus received his baptism in the waters of the Jordan, so each of us is sometime immersed in the waters of God's grace. Whether this is formalised in the sacrament of baptism or experienced while washing the dishes in your kitchen, each of us has the potential to be surrounded again and again by a Spirit that we consider in its goodness and power to be "holy." It can happen any time. And while the sacrament of baptism happens only once, the experience of being baptised, immersed in God's pleasure, can happen again and again. Part of reading your life with the eyes of faith is to see more distinctly these moments of God's grace.
2. Affirmation. Awareness of these moments of grace may be called an "affirmation" - that rare and precious sensation of being affirmed in the core of our being for who we are. It is a beautiful sensation, rather like when, as a child, we saw an adult we loved beaming at us with unconditional love. Jesus heard this affirmation in the words, "You are my beloved, in whom I take great delight . . ."
As with our internal life, so with our external life. Filled with a sense of holy acceptance for who we are, we experience the world more positively. Doors of opportunity may open, new energy may be found for new directions; we might have the experience that "things are going my way."
3. The Wilderness. The 40 days of Lent represent the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness after his baptism, which in turn echo the 40 years the Israelites spent in the wilderness after they passed through the Red Sea waters of God's liberating grace.
Like Jesus and the Israelites before him, those on a journey with God find themselves inevitably in the wilderness. I believe that the wilderness is necessary, for there we discover our radical dependency upon a reality bigger than ourselves. Christian tradition has pointed to the wilderness as a place we can make spiritual use of. It is not a place to run through blindly or look for short-cuts. For this reason we spend 40 days a year in Lent - a revisiting of the wildernesses we have known - a time each year to try to wrestle again and again with the beasts that we meet in this part of our journey, trusting that what we see in them, what we see in ourselves, can lead us closer to God.
And so we find ourselves in the wilderness, that place or time when circumstances create chaos and despair such that we lose our way, lose our ground. The loss of a loved one, a divorce, or being retrenched can lead us overnight into such chaos. Life in this wilderness is frightening. Or perhaps everything is fine on the outside, but on the inside we feel dried up. Everything seems dull. Worship is empty. Prayer is impossible. Life appears to us as a desert.
Welcome to the wilderness.
Where the wild beasts live.
When we find ourselves in the wilderness, our energy is low and we become more exposed and vulnerable to the beasts. Of course, the wild beasts are not outside us, but within us. We know them as greed, envy, lust, apathy, anxiety, fear. Their power over us in the decisions we make can be terrifying. The wild beasts Jesus encountered were not only of the desert, but also of his soul. The Israelites' 40 years in the wilderness took them not so much on a physical journey, but a spiritual one.
The wilderness is frightening not only because of the chaos that led us there or the desert we encounter there, but because being in the wilderness is an experience of feeling abandoned by God. It feels like we have to meet the wild beasts alone. Not sustained by spiritual strength, it seems as if we have to meet envy and fear and greed all on our own. To have faith even in the wilderness means we live and act as if God were with us, in spite of God's felt absence. This "acting as if" is part of the life of faith, the passionate life.
In the felt absence of God, the wild beasts attack.
Every year at Lent, we often promise ourselves that this year, we will rid ourselves of fear; or we may resolve to shake off our laziness and get fit - walk the dog. So we vigorously make our spiritual plans of attack - often the same ones year after year. But the beasts are part of ourselves; if we kill the beasts, we kill part of who we are.
The passionate life is not about amputation. It is about wholeness.
Living into wholeness, we might meet the beasts in ourselves not seeking to kill but to be transformed. In the light of Christ, our vices may become our virtues, our weaknesses our strength.
The author Kathleen Norris tells the story of a woman in the town where she lives. This woman was an alcoholic, and when she was drunk she was blatantly promiscuous. Her drinking and her promiscuity were painfully self-destructive.
This woman joined AA, stopped drinking with the support of that community, and also joined a local church. She became very involved in the life of the congregation and became an elder; but, best of all, she was still promiscuous! She would minister to anyone! She gladly served on any church committee. She served with abandon until she eventually found her calling as a pastoral caregiver to older adults. Her promiscuity was not amputated, but transformed in the healing love of God. Hers is an example of conversion, because her promiscuity was converted - from being destructive to being life-giving. That is transformation. That is what the wilderness of Lent is about. That is the passionate life.
Gracious God, in your mercy hear our prayers.
As we delight in your unlimited grace,
Help us to be equally aware of your presence
even in the long days of our wilderness.
Give us the courage to allow the beasts of self-destruction
to be transformed by your healing light,
that our vices may become our virtues,
our weaknesses, our strength.
In the name of Christ, who goes before us always. Amen.