The wilderness is a place of solitude that evokes a sense of separation from the familiar or predictable in order to create a space for new reflection and realisation. This outside environment provides us with the respite we need if we are to move on from the old ways of being that have temporarily restricted our evolution.
The season of lent mirrors the ancient pathway, a deeply religious narrative of the Jewish community as they journeyed from Egypt to the wilderness and into the promised land. The wilderness was their liminal space, their in-between corridor of time that gave them permission to re-evaluate the big questions that arise as we follow our sacred script of personal transformation.
Jesus as a new incarnation of this ancient story then becomes the archetype that metaphors this mystical pilgrimage of being drawn aside to evaluate the landscape of our spiritual interior.
At once, this same Spirit pushed Jesus out into the wild. For forty wilderness days and nights he was tested by Satan. Wild animals were his companions, and angels took care of him. - Mark 1
This BIG PUSH into the wild place of confrontation is the divine call that leads us into a place of deeper understanding and discernment.
We traditionally understand this story as a test, a test of our resolve around the things that matter most to us, the convictions that we hold to? Over the centuries we have wrestled with this text and tried to understand the nature of good and evil, light and darkness, God and the Satan, which has resulted in numerous confusions around our view of the divine.
We somehow concluded that God became a struggling deity caught up in some kind cosmic conspiracy unable to defeat his archenemy the Devil. We, in turn, became implicated in this celestial subterfuge, never really able to overcome in this life without divine intervention, in whatever form it came.
Could Jesus as the incarnation of God be reminding us afresh that our divinely infused humanity is more than enough to find a way forward?
St Matthews version of the story includes an expansive view of Jesus' deep internal travail in the wilderness, which I propose is the real message of Lent. It is not so much about an other-worldly battle as much as it about the internal struggle of our false and true self.
Parenthetically speaking, the wilderness story of the Hebrew people was not about fighting foreign enemies but their struggle to be a people dedicated to the true-self of their spiritual identity and heritage. Jesus becomes a parabolic version of a bygone mythology and offers us a new trajectory on this interior journey. When confronted by his darkness (the dark one) he reaches back into his religious learning and quotes from the crowning book of the Torah. Deuteronomy was the narrative that recorded the Hebrew peoples journey through the wilderness, the message of antiquity continuing to empower our futurity.
We often read the words of Matthew as 3 tests of confrontational interaction with some kind of anthropomorphised evil being that literally appears to tempt Jesus, but could there be a more symbolic and potentially transformative interpretation available to us? I would like to propose an alternate reading, in that Jesus in a moment of extreme vulnerability (hunger) begins to face the deep questions of his humanity.
Is there more to my life than my own immediate desires, or deep internal issues?
When I face my deep hunger and base cravings I become caught up in a very self-indulgent and consumeristic fight for survival. I am tempted to try and personally engineer my own change, sometimes persuaded that I am the author of my own destiny. It's not that my personal needs don't matter, in fact, they really matter, that's why trust in God or a holy-other is crucial if we are to live a deeply satisfied life. We need natural and supernatural sustenance if we are to survive the yearnings that manipulate our attention and base desires.
Where is God in all of this?
Your view of GOD or whatever word you use to describe the significant divine other in your life will be tested and deconstructed on so many levels. The spiritual certainty that has been proposed by traditionalists has backfired in our faces with a new generation of seekers emerging to confront the versions of God we have proposed as the only ones. It seems like we will go through the endless cycle of questioning our faith in order that we arrive at the destination of trusting and not constantly testing God. Who is God, where is God, what is God, will God really look after me, constantly come up on this pilgrimage. Your spiritual resolve will be tested to the max, so be patient with yourself, moments of clarity will come.
What will I give my devotion to?
Life offers a lot of amazing possibility to the point where we become overwhelmed by the options and difficult choices we must make. It is hard to resist the many temptations of power and prestige that try to deceive us into thinking that we can have it all. You can have some but you cant have it all. That's why sharing, reciprocity, and munificence remain the sole responsibility of the human race. What you give your devotion to must be boundaried by contentment, the transcendent arbiter of true worship (worth-ship). Contentment is fuelled by a deep source of altruism that keeps narcissism and selfishness at bay. What I give my life to really matters.
The interior journey of transformation is the liminal space of my fragile processing, that eventually brings me to a place of confident trust in the Divine who meets me at my point of need. Angels are the metaphor that we use to explain the reassuring care and counsel that is made available to us at our point of need.
The wilderness is an empowering place of becoming... you are not alone.