In the Desert with Satan and the Wild Beasts

יוסי אוד yossi aud Pikiwiki Israel, CC BY 2.5 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

The First Sunday of Lent

The first Sunday of Lent always sees us in the desert with Jesus, confronting temptation. This year we read Mark’s account, and as it is so brief, I’ll quote it in full:

The Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness and he remained there for forty days, and was tempted by Satan. He was with the wild beasts, and the angels looked after him.  

After John had been arrested, Jesus went into Galilee. There he proclaimed the Good News from God. ‘The time has come’ he said ‘and the kingdom of God is close at hand. Repent, and believe the Good News.’

Mark, 1. 12–15.

The first two sentences may be short but they are full of significance. The Greek verb used for the action of the Spirit is very strong. Jesus is, as it were, forced into the desert where his companions are Satan, the wild beasts and angels, none of them exactly comforting. Being looked after by an angel may sound better than being tempted by Satan or pursued by hungry leopards, but as soon as we think how angels are described in the Old Testament, our vision of charming little putti gives way to the awe-inspiring beings of fire and flame who surround the throne of God — not what one would call immediately reassuring.

The Temptations and the Public Ministry

Jesus in the desert is being exposed to the kind of radical insecurity few of us know in the West. He is to learn how to rely on God, and God alone. The temptations he faces, and which the other evangelists delight in detailing, are often used by preachers as an introduction to Lent. Indeed, I’ve used them like that myself, as many previous posts will attest. But Mark doesn’t allow us to linger in the desert or waste time speculating about Jesus’ experience. He turns our attention to John, the Forerunner, and the beginning of the Good News.

I don’t think that’s an accident. We are being asked to move in one swift bound from contemplation of the temptations Christ endured at the start of his public ministry to the purpose of that ministry. The temptations matter, of course, but not as much as the reason for Jesus’ life on earth taken as a whole. There is an urgency about Mark’s gospel that, more than anything else, convinces me of his belief in the importance of what he is saying. Our salvation is at stake; we cannot dawdle on the way. We must repent and believe, NOW.

Our Lenten Pilgrimage

Repentance has two aspects: being sorry for our sin, for (literally) missing the mark, and turning to the Lord — conversion, change. I think that turning to the Lord precedes being sorry for our sins because it is only in response to grace that we can even begin to see that we have sinned. Belief is similar in many ways. We have to be touched by God with the gift of faith before we can believe. We can’t argue ourselves into belief or will ourselves into belief. We have to wait for God to act, and most of us don’t like waiting for anyone or anything, not even God.

Lent can seem very long: forty days of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Forty days of trying to come closer to the Lord. It is easy to want to give up, have a little rest by the wayside; but Mark will have none of that. Our pilgrimage to Easter starts now. Let us pray that we may be attentive to the Lord and follow his lead. We may meet Satan and a few wild beasts on the way, but there are those formidable angels, too. Perhaps they are a comfort, after all.

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Gaudete Sunday (III Sunday of Advent) 2020

St John the Baptist by El Greco
St John the Baptist by El Greco

Gaudete Sunday, with its rose vestments and pealing organ music, ought to be an occasion of pure joy, oughtn’t it? A moment of relaxation in our Advent journey when we rejoice with all our hearts. Then we look at the world about us and sigh. Hundreds of schoolboys abducted from their boarding school in Katsina, Nigeria; post-Brexit trade talks taken to the knife-edge amid threats from the British side to use Royal Navy gunboats to patrol U.K. waters; a dying U.S. presidency which, in the view of many, is storing up trouble for the future; and a pandemic that seems to be regaining much of its original virulence even as it leads to job losses and insecurity among those least equipped to deal with them.

We read Isaiah’s lyrical praise of the Messiah and his mission (Isaiah 61.1-2,10-11), sing the Magnificat in response and allow Paul’s words to the Thessalonians about rejoicing and praying at all times to sink in (1 Thessalonians 5.16-24) and wonder, briefly, whether the Church inhabits the same universe as the rest of us. Then we come to the gospel, (John 1.6-8,19-28), and, as throughout the last few days, focus on the figure of John the Baptist, the saint Jean Daniélou memorably called ‘the one joy man’.

John the Baptist ought to have been a grump, living as he did on the edge of the desert, challenging those who didn’t want to change their ways; but he wasn’t. He was filled with joy, filled with the Spirit, a lamp alight and burning as he waited for the coming of the Son who would be the true Light to enlighten the world. His joy echoes down the centuries. It reminds us that joy doesn’t come from material security or everything going our way. It comes from closeness to the Lord, from trusting him, allowing his light into our darkness. If today the world seems very bleak, we can take courage from John, because there is one very significant fact we need to remember. John wasn’t sure he had encountered the Messiah in the person of Jesus. He questioned. He hesitated. The very one to whom he was forerunner was, in an important sense, unknown to him. I think we can all identify with that — and rejoice, too.

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As the Waters Swell the Sea

The Second Sunday of Advent pulls us up short. No time now for any more dithering. We have Isaiah warning that the word of the Lord is ‘a rod to strike the ruthless’ and John the Baptist baptising with water but threatening fire to those who prove to be no more than chaff. Meanwhile we sit comfortably with our commentaries and talk complacently about the end times and the eschatalogical hope expressed in the Advent liturgy. We forget that ‘the end times’ are now, as everything the liturgy celebrates is now. We already tread the holy mountain that is the privileged meeting-place between God and human beings, for all the earth has been sanctified and every step we take is on holy ground. The winnowing-fan is already applied to us, to sift through the secret motives of our hearts and minds, and John’s urgent call to repentance has resounded again and again in our ears. But what is our response?

I think many of us would admit that our response is, at best, a little half-hearted. We read Isaiah and are enthusiastic about its messianic vision, but we are not quite so enthusiastic about doing what is necessary to realise it. When we pray for peace, we pray for the wolf to change, as though he could cease to be a meat-eater and somehow become a grass-nibbler; or, we’ll pray for the lamb to change, as though she could become a predator and instil fear in other animals. We forget that both must learn to live together, in mutual trust and respect. We like the idea of being ‘filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters swell the sea’ but we shy away from too close a contact with this strange and terrible God who dwells in fire and flame and whose holiness is utterly other; and yet . . . and yet we are drawn by his tenderness and compassion and end up as confused as John’s hearers, whom he called a brood of vipers but who, far from turning an adder’s deaf ear, longed to hear more. We must prepare a way for the Lord in our hearts, but how?

The answer to that question is very simple. We answer it every night at Compline when we look back on the day’s doings and ask ourselves, ‘What have I wanted today? Where has my desire  been?’ The haunting beauty of the Advent liturgy, all its fine phrases, its plangent music, avails us nothing if it does not lead to that moment of choice, when we choose to be converted, to seek Christ — as he is, and not as we would like him to be. The reality of God must burst in upon us as the sea rushes into a cove. That is what it means to be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters swell the sea, to be God’s pure wheat safely gathered into his barn.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Poor Worm, Puny Mite

Few of us would be flattered to be called a ‘poor worm’ or ‘puny mite’ by a stranger, but that is exactly how the Lord addresses Israel in Isaiah 41. 13–20. Context is everything, of course, and in Isaiah it is the language of tenderness and intimacy. We can identify with Israel, shivering with fear, shrinking from the violence on every side, but held fast by God’s right hand. The trouble is, although we know it is so, we don’t often feel it is so — or if we do, doubts about our sanity may arise. We have to  live a strange paradox, knowing how weak and vulnerable we are yet at the same time knowing that the victory has been won; and the God we can’t see or hear or touch is closer to us than we are to ourselves because his Spirit dwells within us.

Today’s gospel introduces the figure of John the Baptist to our Advent liturgy (Matthew 11. 11–15). John did not speak of poor worms or tiny mites but broods of vipers, yet there is a tender eagerness about all the Baptist’s doings that is arresting. He, too, lived a strange paradox, as ‘the greatest yet born of woman, though the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.’

How we are to reconcile these paradoxes, I don’t know, but they provide ample food for thought. My own private accommodation of these texts may strike you as fanciful, but whenever I think of Isaiah’s poor worm, I think of the glow-worm — not a true worm, at all,  but an insect, destined to have wings and soar to the heights with a beautiful luminescence. There is in all of us, in the black carbon of our being, something of Hopkins’s ‘immortal diamond’ which God has created, treasures and keeps safe. John saw that and spent his whole life trying to get others to see it, too.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Gaudete Sunday 2014

Every year for the last ten years I have blogged about Gaudete Sunday. Every year, for as long as I can remember, I have been to Mass on this Sunday and shared in the Sacrament of the altar. Today, however, will be different. I shall drive Quietnun to Mass (we live some miles away from the nearest Catholic church, common enough in England, but rarer elsewhere) and while she participates in the Mass inside, I shall be sitting outside, reading the lessons and prayers*. It is, if I’m honest, slightly miserable. Which brings me to my point.

This morning many a priest will be exhorting his congregation to rejoice. The Mass readings are full of exultant joy; and the choir, if there is one, will be raising the roof with glad song. Even the church’s appearance will change today, with a swirl of rose vestments and incense breaking in on our Advent plainness. So what do we do if our own feelings are out of step with the message, if we are, so to say, feeling like outsiders?

We cannot and should not pretend to a joy we do not have, but instead of shrugging off the whole idea and going our misanthropic way alone, perhaps we should reconsider what we mean by rejoicing and why we are exhorted to be joyful. The joy of a Christian has nothing to do with feelings; it has very little to do with circumstances, either, but has everything to do with hope — our hope in Christ and our hope for all eternity. The broken heart is still broken, but now it is bound up; the poor are still poor, but now we hear the Good News; whatever our past failures, now we are wrapped in the cloak of integrity. (cf Isaiah 61. 1-2, 10-11) Like John the Baptist, we look beyond ourselves to the person of Christ; and like John, we rejoice, we find our joy in Him. We may be going through a desert period in our lives; we may be very conscious of our own fragility and unworthiness; but it doesn’t matter. Christ is all in all. As I sit in the car this morning, I shall try to remember that.

* The chemotherapy I’m having means I’m vulnerable to infection.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Still Thinking About Integrity

You must have noticed how often the the prophet Isaiah mentions integrity. Today’s first Mass reading, taken from chapter 48, is regretful about the integrity we haven’t practised and the happiness we have thereby forfeited:

Thus says the Lord, your redeemer, the Holy One of Israel:
I, the Lord, your God, teach you what is good for you,
I lead you in the way that you must go.
If only you had been alert to my commandments,
your happiness would have been like a river,
your integrity like the waves of the sea.
Your children would have been numbered like the sand,
your descendants as many as its grains.
Never would your name have been cut off or blotted out before me.

Still that word ‘integrity’ tugs at me endlessly. John the Baptist lived with integrity; so did St John of the Cross, whose feast we celebrate today; so, above all, did our Lord Jesus Christ. We’ve all known people of integrity and how difficult they can be to live with, even as we admire their courage, honesty and so on. That is because integrity has a way of transforming the lives of those who come into contact with it, often in ways that could not have been foreseen and might not have been welcomed if they had.

I like Isaiah’s image of the waves of the sea. That is exactly how the integrity of others frequently affects us: it topples us over, keeps coming back at us, won’t let go, swamps us at times, because it has an energy and force that its inconsequential appearance may belie. Four inches of water is enough to sweep a grown man off his feet. In the same way, it takes only a very little integrity to change things. Perhaps we should remember that and think about the presence or absence of integrity in our own lives.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail