Lent 1 2012

Many more people nowadays see something of deserts but we don’t do them in the sense that Jesus did, or Abraham and the unwilling Sarai, or Jacob looking for his brothers or his own salvation; or Joseph and the very pregnant Mary travelling from Nazareth to Bethlehem; or Moses and the fretful children of Israel for 40 years! We go through them in an air conditioned coach, or look down on Namibia from  35,000 feet for hours, just sand, we think but we don’t get the sand into our sandals, our hopes are not deluded by mirages nor do we keep close company with the wild animals which won’t like us very much at all. Deserts are fascinating and frightening, empty and often windy, easy to get lost in and so to die in and yet on a still night utterly wonderful in their abundance of stars. St. Mark is at his laconic best “And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days tempted by Satan and he was with the wild beasts and the angels waited on him”Note well that the angels attended to his needs; they did not give him what he wanted which would have been a cold drink and rapid transportation home! Just like us.

It is a violent juxtaposition from the exaltation of his baptism with all that water and the approval of the Father; now it is out on the wrong side of the Jordan and into the wilderness. From the protection of his Nazareth life and his friends on the lakeside, some of whom were to follow him later as disciples, Jesus goes off into the unknown. Alone he has to experience the power and the guile of his adversary in one to one spiritual discomfort and temptations of originality and relevance one after the other. For this time to be profitable it was necessary that it was real, there was little enough mystic attraction in that bleak countryside where nobody in their right mind went, certainly not alone, except for the wild beasts who are also hungry and thirsty and friendly birds like vultures waiting for their favourite lunch – dead man.

Jesus was not going to be protected by any obvious help from outside - the wit and wisdom of his scriptural defeating of his adversary come from within - and he was neither deserted, nor forsaken but feeling like it: hungry, thirsty and tired and more and yet more sand.  Unlike the huge safari parks of Kenya with their roads, albeit dirt, Jesus didn’t have a car and his desert was without the civilising influence of roads or radios. What does this say about our keeping of Lent? “Man proposes, God disposes” Thomas á Kempis tells us and we do well to remember this as we set out on our 40 days journey towards Easter. The point of Lent is not to reduce our waistline or to show off by doing without things in public but to try and get closer to God. This is no doubt Jesus’ intention in the desert but it didn’t quite turn out as he expected, so may it be for each of us this Lent. For Jesus, each of his conflicts was succeeded by a worse encounter. I doubt if any of us will have a temptation that takes us to the pinnacle of Westminster Abbey, or would it be the Millennium wheel? Nor to turn a collection of rocks and boulders into the most mouth-watering patisserie, or even just a Macdonald’s! No, temptations will surely come and so we have to try and cleave closely to the Lord, come what may, no matter how arid our devotions seem, how boringly desert-like the Lenten discipline feels.

There was once an old man who always pronounced discipline as disciplin - following Jesus - and that is no bad thing. So we shall be looking to our discipline and this is where I take issue with the New English Hymnal. In the hymn “Lead us heavenly Father lead us” until 1986 I had always sung “Lone and dreary, faint and weary / through the desert thou didst go”. Now I am expected to sing “Self denying, death defying / thou to Calvary didst go”. Totally admirable but it is sanitised; it doesn’t smell. After forty days in the desert Jesus most certainly would smell; he was alone, he was frightened and he was severely tempted. So in this blessed season of Lent don’t let anybody think of themselves EVER as “self denying, death defying” but we all know quite a bit about being “lone and dreary faint and weary” and I hope that we shall be making enough of Lent to stir up our adversary below so there is just a trace of sulphur in our temptations. If, as we do battle with them, we end up ”lone and dreary faint and weary” we shall know in whose company we have been.

Aidan Mayoss CR