I have been so busy in Lent this year that I have forgotten about Lent.
Suddenly, I realized that Holy Week is only a week away and I have taken no time to ponder on Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness.
Looking once more at the story, the things that strikes me, is the physical dimension.It takes place in the desert, in a barren, hostile wilderness where survival is a challenge.
‘Jesus’, we are told is led into the desert.
Absolute isolation is a rare thing.We live in a world where there are people all around.Even if we are alone, it would be rare for us to be absolutely isolated.
Anywhere you go in Ireland, if you face an emergency then there are people to call upon.Even in the wider world absolute isolation is a rare thing, you might be a round the world yachtsman or a polar explorer, but if you run into trouble the aircraft will be out looking for you.
Jesus is alone, there would have been no-one upon whom to call, no-one to come to the rescue.Absolute isolation is a frightening prospect. Imagine being entirely alone.What if you were sick? What if you fell on one of the rocks and broke an ankle?You would just lie there and slowly die.
Loneliness always seems stronger when it is combined with darkness.I really don’t like the dark.I remember being in Africa in the autumn of 1998 and visiting a village in south-west Tanzania.We had been given a meal at the house of the local bishop and then at about 10 o’clock we walked back to the compound in which we were staying.It was surrounded by a solid bamboo fence about eight feet high and there was not a light to be seen anywhere.Finding the compound was easy enough, we just walked along a path, but when we got there we had no idea of how to find the gate.It was so dark that we could see no sign of any opening in the fence.It was funny for a few moments as we shuffled along two hands against the fence trying to find the gate.Then Roger said to me, ‘careful where you are treading, they have big snakes in this country’, and laughter suddenly became fear.The darkness, which had been something jolly, became something sinister and threatening.
Darkness for me is something to be avoided, but for other people it’s an opportunity.I was bringing my daughter Miriam from Guides one evening and she pointed up to the sky and said, ‘there’s Orion’s belt’.Orion’s belt to me could have been a new Aer Lingus plane, but the night sky for many people is a source of interest and wonder.If we are to enter into Jesus’ experience of the wilderness we need to experience darkness away from all the city lights and the glow in the sky and to look into the sky as Jesus would have done during those forty nights.When we do that that we have a sense of our unimportance, our frailty, our mortality, but also a sense of God’s great love, that in this infinite space he has time for infinitesimally small people like us.
Along with the isolation and the darkness, the wilderness offers Jesus silence. Many people put on the television or the radio, even if they are not listening.I remember being a curate in the North and saying to one lady that she had left her television on in the other room.‘Oh, I keep it on’, she said, ‘it gives me a bit of company’.I must confess to being like her, often the car radio is on, but I have no idea what is being said.
There is a tendency to fill our lives with noise. It’s almost as though we are afraid of what thoughts might come into our heads if we were quiet.If we fill our every waking moment with inconsequential babble, then there will be no place for disturbing thoughts.Look at the stuff we watch on television, how much of it is actually worth watching?Why not turn off the set and listen to the silence?
How can we hear God if we never take time to listen? The story of Jesus in the desert teaches us the importance of silence, of being quiet for even a short time so that we can hear the voice of God.
Isolation, darkness and silence are experiences that can have both negative and positive aspects.There are other physical experiences in the desert that do not have a positive side to them, but can still give insights.
Hunger is not positive.I heard one of our bishops talking about being at the Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops in 1998, one morning a Filipino bishop came to breakfast and poured himself a mountainous bowl of corn flakes.Our bishop looked at him and said jokingly, ‘You are not fasting’.The Filipino looked at him in seriousness and said, ‘My friend, when I return home there will be many times of fasting’.There is a difference between the sort of fasting we practice in our own country where we have full cupboards of food and the fasting faced by countless people who simply have nothing to eat.
To be hungry is something we can choose, not because it necessarily makes us any better, but because it gives us a tiny insight into the realities of our world.On the Tanzanian trip in 1998 I travelled two days in a jeep with two African companions.We set off very early one morning and by the middle of the day I was feeling hungry and I realized that there would be no lunch.It did not seem to even figure in their thinking, our idea of three meals a day was not part of the way they lived.There was a journey to be made and completed, if that meant no food, then that was life.
Hunger is not a positive experience, nor are the other physical experiences that Jesus went through in those forty days, the scorching heat of the midday sun, the bitter cold of the nights, the discomfort of living in the open air, sleeping on the rocks.I don’t cope well with physical discomfort.Our flight from Andorra was delayed by sixteen hours last Sunday; I thought it was a major setback.
I have decided I can cope with most things as long as I have water to wash – it might mean standing in a shack, pouring buckets over my head my head, but I can cope with that as long as I feel clean. My problem in facing what Jesus faced would be the thought of not changing clothes for forty days, I couldn’t cope with it; it makes me itch to think about it! Maybe it is a useful exercise to think about what things we need in order to cope.What things are essential?If everything were lost tomorrow, what things would I want to replace first?It is remarkable how much I have that I don’t need, yet after a while things that I once regarded as luxuries become necessities.Jesus’ physical experience should help thoughts about what things are really important.
There are two emotions that Jesus’ physical experience would have caused that are not mentioned in the Bible and that might help in thinking about the story.The first is fear.Being in the open air, alone, at night, in an environment where wild animals were common would have been frightening.You become wary of every little sound.What things do I fear?
The other emotion is boredom.I tell my son Michael that boredom is good for him knowing that I hate it myself.I remember working on a plant nursery for a couple of summers and there being a fourteen acre field where the hoeing between the individual plants had to be done by hand.I used to dread being put on that job, not because of the blisters on the hands at the end of the day, but because of the boredom, I wasn’t old enough to have many things to think about.How does Jesus cope with boredom?I don’t know, but as I have got older I have found that boredom can be an opportunity to get thoughts in order and to think about things that might otherwise get no thought.
In the time that’s left this Lent, I’m going to think about the isolation, the darkness and the silence; the hunger and the discomfort; the fear and the boredom; and maybe somewhere will be found the voice of God.