“He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan” Mark 1:13
Isolation, emptiness, barrenness, the wilderness was not a place that was welcoming. The sense of loneliness would have been overwhelming. A sense of fear about the future would have filled the moments of reflection. There would have been real physical danger from animals that might lurk, particularly at night when sleep meant keeping watch was not possible. Jesus was plunged into a situation that was unwelcome, that was unpleasant, and that was unavoidable.
All had been going well. There seemed no prospect of him having to endure such hardship.
In his terse narrative of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, Saint Mark describes the baptism of Jesus. It is a moment of transcendence, a moment of the in-breaking of the divine, Chapter 1 Verse 10 says, “he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.” It must have been a moment of communion between Jesus and his Father, a moment when he felt his true self. The sense of exaltation must have been complete when the voice speaks to him, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
When all is going well, when filled with a sense of fulfilling God’s purpose, could Jesus have expected what was to follow? God was well-pleased with him, might he not have expected to have been treated in a different way? Might he not have expected a display of God’s pleasure with him, rather than the forty days that followed?
Saint Mark says in Verse 12, “And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.” The word Mark uses is “ekballei,” it literally means that Jesus was thrown out. It is not a matter of choice, it is a matter of force.
The human Jesus must have gone through many emotions at being treated in such a way. It would have seemed unfair and inexplicable that he had found himself in this situation. There might have been a sense of anger at suffering which seemed unmerited.
Saint Matthew and Saint Luke give a fuller account of the spiritual battles Jesus has to face in this bleak place. Saint Mark is brief in the description he provided in Verse 13, saying no more than that Jesus was “tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” There might have been spiritual consolation in feeling God’s presence through the angels, but the physical challenge and hardship had to be faced. Tiredness, hunger, coldness, discomfort, pain, all would have combined to leave Jesus feeling very low and very lonely. It would have been hard for him to have discerned a purpose in what he was going through.
Perhaps the purposelessness of the forty days was the point of the experience. The story of the baptism says that the Father is “well pleased:” what more could be necessary? The forty days give Jesus a sense of what it is to be human in times when nothing makes any sense, in times when there is no-one who can offer any explanation. Daily human life is often purposeless, without significance, without joy. Life is often a matter of endurance, a process of getting through the days. A Jesus who did not go through a sense of pointlessness, a sense of futility, a sense of struggling for no reason, would not have been human at all.
The experience of the forty days has a postscript. John the Baptist is arrested and murdered and Jesus returns to Galilee, says Saint Mark in Verses 14-15, “proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
The wilderness time comes to an end. Jesus gets through the experience. There is no joyful end to the story, how could the killing of his friend John have within it anything joyful? Yet Jesus steels himself, he is determined, he has work to do and he must do it.
After isolation, suffering, pain and grief, Jesus gathers himself up and says that the time has come to start anew. The experiences he has been through must have been physically battering, spiritually depressing, yet he carries on in the belief of the good news to come.