The Wilderness

Why does Mark only mention the word temptation once in his depiction of Jesus’ sojourn in the wilderness? For Matthew and Luke this seems to be the central point . They  depict wilderness as a place where temptation is fought. This is an image of wilderness that throughout Christian history has clearly appealed. But its an image that I prefer to defer until next year when we actually have to deal with either Matthew’s or Luke’s text. In staying close to Mark’s text I am lead to contemplate a new image of wilderness, one that accords much more closely with my own experience.

In 1998 I had the experience of 12 weeks out of my normal context of leading a large mental health chaplaincy team in South London. I had 6 weeks in the desert of South West Namibia followed by another 6 weeks in the lush jungle of Kawaii reminiscent of those scenes from the TV drama Lost. My discovery was that it was in the parched desert rather than the sensuous profusion of the tropical jungle that my parched soul came to life. Now living in the middle of the Sonoran Desert in Phoenix Arizona this paradox – of my soul thriving in the parched wilderness of the desert is daily confirmed for me. This experience makes a new sense for me why many of the Early Christian Fathers and Mothers similarly fled to the wastes of the Egyptian desert. 

For those of us familiar with the desert know that it abounds with a profusion of life that thrives on the knife-edge of environmental limitation through a skillful adaptation that only creative life makes in the face of profound limitation. Playing with this image leads me to see in Mark’s depiction of Jesus’ in the wilderness an image of Jesus contemplating the unfolding of his ministry against a very real awareness that it would be boundaried by social, political, and religious limitation. Mark of all the Evangelists understands this because his community lives in a space bordered by powerful political and ethnic limitations. His community is situated among the poor and the outcasts at the heart of the City of Rome- the capital of the Empire. In this context of limitation wild beasts both human and animal visit daily suffering and death on Mark’s community. But of all the churches of the NT period, Mark’s  community in the heart of Rome experiences the immediacy of the presence of Christ powerfully sustaining them.

I would like to suggest that this Lent we put away the well-worn images of fighting temptation and associating the wilderness as a place of suffering. Let us instead imagine wilderness as a place where we come up against the fact that our lives are lived within the boundaries of limitation. Human life does not in fact thrive in the context of endless possibilities. As all good therapists know its only when the limitations of the boundaries are held firmly enough that the space within becomes a rich place for experimentation and change. Limitation forces us back into the space where our lives are actually lived and impels us to creative adaptation imposed by limitation.

 

Where do you experience wilderness in your life? How do you feel about limitation?  I invite you all to use this Lent as a time to explore the possibility of wilderness becoming a space for what St Benedict calls the Transformation of Life. Here life is not deprived by limitation  – but becomes a place where limitation by imposing necessary boundaries catalyzes us to thrive as the desert plants and wildlife thrive – through skillful and imaginative adaptation.

You can listen to this in sermon form at http://www.azcathedral.org

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