Wilderness. Look it up. The words describing wilderness tell you what it is like: inhospitable, uncultivated, uninhabitable for human life, isolated. The word is derived from the notion of wildness and the thought that it is a place that cannot be controlled by humans.
Wilderness is not just a physical, geographic landscape. It can also be a heart, mind, spirit landscape: a location we find ourselves in from time to time during this journey we call life.
Wilderness is a powerful biblical theme. The ancient Hebrews found themselves in it for a proverbial forty years in between centuries of slavery in Egypt and arriving at the “Promised Land.” In Gospel “good news” Jesus retreats to it, as do others, to hear a prophet’s urgent message and be baptized in the shallow muddy waters of a stream called the Jordan River. Then, alone, to be driven immediately into an even deeper wilderness region for a proverbial forty days and forty nights before emerging to finally begin his ministry.
Wilderness is a powerful theological (human study of this theos we call “God”) and spiritual theme. A theme that always appears in our readings at the beginning of the actual forty days and forty nights in our Christian liturgical journey called Lent. A good time to examine the experience of wilderness which of course does not limit itself to a predictable, controllable schedule in human life.
A bit of Bible Study & A Few Questions
“John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” (Mark 1:4). “Jesus came and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the beloved. . . .’ And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” (Mark 1:9-13)
How do we get into wilderness times?
Sometimes we go there intentionally. We retreat into a wilderness time/place like Jesus did when he came out into it to be baptized. We sense or know that we need something we might find there. Sometimes people go into “wilderness” (the unknown) to prepare themselves, to get ready for something coming. Wilderness offers the opportunity for self-examination and for self-revelation. What am I made of? What are my strengths and weaknesses? What do I need to find to sustain me as I go forward in life? It offers a time of internal “quest” – initially at a shallower level but then can lead to much deeper levels of interior quest.
Sometimes we are led into wilderness times, drawn into a wilderness time, almost as if some internal GPS is guiding us towards and into such a time. “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit (from his baptism) was led by the Spirit in the wilderness.” (Luke 4:1) In the Gospel of Luke, the gentler word “led” is used instead of the more intense word “driven” we experience in the Gospel of Mark.
The challenges and opportunities presented in a wilderness time and place in our life may unfold in similar ways, however we got there. Whether we intentionally sought a wilderness “retreat” time. Or seemed to be mysteriously led, drawn, guided into such a time. Or we were driven into it urgently as if against our will. Or as may happen in one’s life we are dropped, dumped, exiled suddenly, dramatically, inexplicably into a harsh and barren wilderness landscape for an uncertain time. In my own life, like maybe you have, I have intentionally sought “a time apart” to retreat into a pared down time and place to sort through things, hoping to see my life and way forward with greater clarity. And, at the other end of the wilderness continuum I have been driven or even suddenly dropped into a crisis driven wilderness time and place, such as when my husband died suddenly of a silent heart attack. A “corporate” example is when COVID hit, creating an uncontrollable pandemic, an infestation attacking human life and completely altering our physical, emotional, and social landscapes. Wilderness is life altering, whether we are ready for transition or not.
What do we need in the wilderness – what helps us through?
Biblical narratives point to something important. The God who created us wants continuing life, not final death, for Creation, including its human life. While wilderness is contemplated within the fullness of a Creation authored by the Holy, it seems to serve as a “transition” to pass through – a bridge time to cross over. A time of testing leading to discovery, revelation, new visioning as something old is passing away behind us and light needs to shine ahead of us. The operative trajectory, the vision for wilderness times is on the way through, over, beyond such a time, having learned some things during it. We are not meant to live forever in wilderness. The Holy hope, the Holy vision is for fullness, health, wholeness, abundance, Shalem (wellness), Shalom (peace). It is a flourishing “garden” image, a place of fruitful relationship with each other, all of the Created Order and the Holy that creates, sustains, is present throughout.
So what sustains, strengthens, resources us in wilderness times? Look at the good news in today’s Gospel Bible passage. There is a lot to reflect on, but let’s focus on three important aspects of the message. 1) God’s Voice at his baptism affirming that Jesus is “beloved.” Love is a huge resource and God wants us to experience it, know the reality of the power of it, and get resourced by it. 2) God’s Spirit, tearing open the heavens to come be with Jesus, to descend upon Jesus, enter and abide within him. The Holy Spirit is an infusion of Holy Energy to stir up and energize spiritual “antibodies” that can fight off any attack, strengthen our immune system. 3) Then those wonderful angels, continually offering Holy Presence and intimate care throughout Jesus’ wilderness time. Angels, God’s messengers offering comfort, care, loving, sustaining awareness that the Holy wants to sustain us within and then through any wilderness time.
Can we grab hold of these ideas, these amazing lessons about Holy, life-giving Re-Sources the Holy wants us to realize are available to us as beloved children of God? Needed desperately in wilderness times; needed also at any time in our lives. As near and available as the air we breathe and the gravity that connects us to the earth.
Ponder these things in your heart, mind, and spirit. Then open to the possibilities the Holy Source offers so lovingly and continually to resource life. Explore what they might mean in and to your life. Throughout Lent, beyond it and always.
Through God’s Amazing Grace, may it be so.