In my last post, I concluded that in the baptism of Jesus in Mark 1:9-11, we can think of no picture or analog of greater fellowship and connection with God than in this moment when Jesus’ ministry of proclamation is inaugurated. As Jesus became what we are so that we might become who he is, we see in this portrait the entire direction of human history and God’s purposes for human life. Like, or akin to Jesus, we are to be image-bearers, carrying out the very life of God into the world, and in this life centered on devotion, praise and submission, God acknowledges our intimate relatedness expressed in terms of joy, kinship and love.
Relating this to my own life, I think back to what some might term as “mountaintop” experiences in which I felt intimately and wonderfully connected to God in ways that my everyday life and experience could not contain. Mountaintop experiences of and with God make all other examples of human, temporal joy pale in comparison in that these sources of joy take their source from and are illuminated by fellowship with God.
Yet, with each of these moments comes the inevitable let down, the sense that the wonderful insight of who God is and how we fit into the larger picture of things was really too great a thing for our hearts to contain. For whatever reason, having been drawn into the life of God and responded to the pulse of God’s life present in all things, such moments quickly shift and flicker from a glorious sunset to cold dusk as the sun drifts below the horizon.
We have many witnesses to this phenomenon in our Christian tradition ranging from St. John of the Cross’ “dark night of the soul,” to more recently Mother Theresa’s nagging doubt of God’s presence amidst the squalor of the poor and dying. We see this present in Jesus’ life as well. What begins at the pinnacle of God’s present-ness in the world in the baptism of Jesus eventually becomes a moment of agony and pain on the cross as Jesus cries out in a tortured voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani” (my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?). It is almost as if that point of greatest connection to God drives us further away from God. They way of the cross, it would seem, involves distance from a God who seems silent.
A natural response, of course, is “why must it be this way?” In the language of one of my parishioners, why is it that the harder I pray, the more I feel God isn’t listening? To put it another way, why is it that kinship with God necessarily results in a wilderness experience? How do we make sense of the silence of God?
Most traditional readings of the second move of this passage cast Jesus’ time in the wilderness as a moment like this. Mark tells us that the Spirit “drives out” (ekballei) Jesus from the Jordan into the wilderness. There, he spends forty days and forty nights in isolation, being tempted by Satan. It is bad enough that Jesus isn’t given more time to bask in the glow of the divine communion present at the moment of baptism, but to be cast into the harsh wilderness and tempted by the evil one suggests a harshness that we find hard to understand. Accordingly, such commentators remark, we are to see in the wilderness a time of trial, hardship and pain as Jesus is forced into the dark and wild places, far from God’s presence. For them, the wilderness prefigures the cross.
If this is the case for Jesus, we can expect the same for ourselves. The entire movement around renewing liturgical practices for Ash Wednesday is built on this assumption. Take your ashes, remember that you are dust, and short of actual sackcloth, spend forty days in the arid wilderness of giving up chocolate and fun because we are going to get serious about our faith. Oh, and don’t forget: it’s fish dinners for the next month, all the way down.
However, I think this approach is both tired and pays little attention to the text. Instead of a time of great trial and hardship, what I see in this story is that God is preparing Jesus through an ever-increasing sense of God’s presence in the world, and God’s direct care for Jesus within his experience in the wilderness. While it is true that Jesus is “tempted” (peirazomenos) by Satan while there, I don’t think this warrants us seeing this as some epic showdown between God and the devil. Instead, Satan as the accuser attempts to chip away at Jesus’ claim to authority and power, but in the same way that Jesus will rebuff the scribes and Pharisees (Mark 8:11), as well as his own disciples (Mark 8:33), Jesus is in full command of this scenario. The freight train that was just set into motion in Jesus’ baptism will not be derailed on its way to God’s victory over the powers of sin and death in the death and resurrection of Jesus.
No, instead of a morose and worn Jesus out in the wilderness, half mad and starved as we might have envisioned John the Baptist in Mark 1:4-8, Mark tells us in 1:13 that he was with the wild beasts, and that the angels waited on him. Moreover, Jesus was there for forty days and forty nights, highly symbolic throughout Scripture of preparation and refinement of Israel in numerous parallels throughout Hebrew Scripture wherein the people of God are directly nourished and supported by God.
Israel is prepared in the wilderness (Deuteronomy 8:2-5) as the people of God so that their life together in the land promised to them might reflect God’s reign. Yes, unlike Jesus, they were recalcitrant and so that first generation needed to pass away so that a new generation could inherit the Promised Land. Nevertheless, it is in the heart of the desert wilderness that God directly nourishes the people by the giving of manna and quail, and where the people are perfected on their way into Canaan. (Exodus 16) What makes this seem like a miserable experience is the hard heartedness and idolatry of the people. For Mark, however, Jesus is the corrective. As fully God and fully man, he is perfectly obedient, and models for us God’s intentions for human life: that we have been, are and shall be strengthened by the God’s providential care.
Other examples abound. Elijah flees for his life to the wilderness in 1 Kings 19:4 after hearing a death threat from Jezebel, and it is there in the wilderness that an angel of the Lord ministers to Elijah, feeding him and giving him water. We see God’s compassion and mercy towards Hagar in the wilderness on the way to Shur in Genesis 16:7-15. Driven out by Sarai, she seems doomed and without hope, but an angel of the Lord is there to minister to her beside a well. Because of this great deliverance, she names the spot and its well be’er-lahai-roi, or “the well of the Living One who sees me.”
All in all, the wilderness is not the locus of God abandonment, but rather the staging point for radical encounter with God! In the wilderness, angels wait on Jesus, and though it isn’t said explicitly, we can imagine that he is nourished on manna (bread of heaven! talk about parallels with the Lord’s table…) and water from the rock as he is the bread of life (John 6:35) and the living water. (John 4:13-14)
If we can find room in Mark’s representation of the wilderness story for this possibility, we deepen our interpretation of Matthew and Luke’s presentation of this event (certainly a bit more desperate in that they detail that Jesus fasted during this forty day period). In those accounts, Jesus responds to Satan’s temptation of stone to bread that we do not live by bread alone but by the very word of God. Jesus can say this because he both relies on God’s direct provision and care, and Jesus himself IS NOW that perfect expression of care for Israel as the fulfillment of the promises of God. Jesus IS the manna in the wilderness, the very Word of God spoken to God’s people which sustains all life — bread from stones are cheap and paltry substitutes.
In my next post, I will pick up on the theme of Jesus being with the wild beasts as a final expression of both God’s intimate care and Jesus as the full expression of God’s intention for redeemed human life.