Written by Heather Walton
At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.
9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’
12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’
It is the moment in between…
Between call and answer, between revelation and proclamation, between promise and fulfilment. And Jesus is led by the Spirit into the wilderness and there he is tempted. He remains there for forty days and he is with wild animals and the angels minister to him.
Those who first received this text would have known the pattern this story takes very well indeed. God delivers the chosen people through the waters but they are to spend forty years in the wilderness before entering into the promises they had been given. They would have known that the wilderness is a ‘place between places’. A raw place which is both barren and blessed; a place where faith is lost and learned. A wild ferocious place and yet also a place where God sustains. Each morning there is manna on the ground and it tastes like honey on the tongue.
When, in the early Christian centuries, the desert fathers and mothers sought out wild and wilderness places they were not romantic about their calling. It was not exaltation of their spirits they were seeking – not the radical purification of wind and fire the desert has come to represent. For Saint Anthony, one of the earliest and best known desert saints, the wilderness was a place of continuous wearying, mundane struggle and his legendary years of temptation were not to achieve the glory of sublime vision but rather the vulnerable humility of those who know God.
So, the wilderness is not to be regarded as a place of escape into a spiritual realm very different from the everyday world. It should be understood instead as a place where spiritual visions confront stubborn realities!
In fact, it is only relatively recently that people have started to think of wilderness places as especially spiritual locations. Industrialisation, which transformed both the social and geographical landscapes, created a yearning for simpler lives, solitary places and the refreshment of natural beauty. Prior to modern times it was the harsh, grim discomfort and even danger wilderness represented that most gripped people’s imaginations. We should, of course, be extremely grateful for those who campaigned to conserve wild places for future generations. But we should also challenge ourselves about the romanticizing of wilderness in contemporary culture – and maybe also in our own thinking.
A book by the anthropologist Anna Tsing has recently become influential in environmental thinking. It has a very strange title: ‘The Mushroom at the End of the Universe’. The subtitle is ‘On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins’. As its title suggest, the book concerns the devastation of both ecological and social structures in the economic system that shapes our world. Tsing sees her work as a project of spiritual attentiveness that takes place amidst ‘the wholesale, interconnected, and seemingly unstoppable ruination’ in which it is ‘not easy to know how to make a life, much less avert planetary destruction’.
And yet the central symbol of the book is the ability of a particular type of highly prized mushroom, to thrive in areas of disturbance and apparent waste. They do so alongside communities of people who are diverse, transient and sometimes considered waste or wasted themselves. These people form fragile relationships with the natural world as they tend these broken habitats and harvest the mushrooms, they cannot simply restore ancient forests and landscapes but they do become part of a revitalising web as complex and diverse as fungal life itself. Fragile entanglements take place between people and places and other forms of life. What Tsing gives us is a precious vision of wilderness places for today. These are places where we dwell amongst the ruins but, she says, they can also become ‘the latent commons’ where we discover resilience, interdependence and nurture hope out of the ruined fragments that remain.
This Lent we understand very well what it means to live wasted places and in wilderness times. We have noted the many social and environmental challenges we face but we also need to acknowledge the personal struggles many of us have faced over the past year. The fear, isolation, grief, and uncertainty the Covid has brought has left many of feeling lost and stranded in a place far from comfort and far from home. We know the wilderness well for we don’t only inhabit it but it is within us.
There is nothing easy to be said about this. Let us not romanticise the wilderness at all. It is a raw place. But while it is barren it is not without its blessings. It is a place where faith is lost and yet also learned. A wild ferocious place and yet also a place where God sustains. This Lent let us gather the manna that is found here. Taste it now for it can’t be stored and kept or sold and traded. It is for sustenance at this moment and in this place alone.
Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness and there he was tempted. He was there for forty days and with the wild animals and yet the angels ministered to him.
This Lent may you be sustained as you live in between God’s promise and its fulfilment in your own life.
Your item – a pebble
The sculptor Barbara Hepworth lived by the sea and walked the Cornish Coast in all weathers. She often picked up stones on the beach. She said, ‘Many people select a …pebble to carry for the day. The weight and form … felt in our hands relates us to the past and gives us a sense of universal force. The beautifully shaped stone washed up by the sea is a symbol of continuity. A silent image of our desire for survival, peace and security’
For further reflection
Carry your pebble with you for the day. Let it connect you to the promises of the past, let it remind you of God in the in-between time of Lent and may it become the symbol of a hope that sustains you for the future.
Oh God we have been driven by the Spirit to dwell in the wilderness this Lent.
We long for the greening and refreshment of
our broken environments, relationships, and spiritual lives.
But help us now to receive what the wilderness can give and learn the lessons it teaches. May we nurture the fragile life of this place as a sign of our hope in You.
Feed us with what we need for today as we place our future in your hands.
We praise you God of green pastures, flowing water, burning rocks and desert sands.Amen
For previous parts of our Journey through Lent go to: https://wellingtonchurch.co.uk/category/lent/Lent2021/