”Thereupon the Spirit sent him away into the wilderness, and there he remained for forty days tempted by Satan.”— Mark 1:12
He is driven into the wilderness. He is thrown into the vast distances of the desert. What was Jesus’ head telling him while the eyes of his soul cast about for any sign of his Father’s presence? Could he still hear God’s voice cascading down on him like summer rain, like the water John poured over him before he went under?
He is the beloved son of the Father. If by this time Joseph was dead, Jesus’ claim on God as his father — an extraordinary, mystical embrace that had begun when he was a child — is now complete.
The muddy Jordan is a warm stream; he rises from its waters as if from birth. He’s feeling his way along, unsure of what is next, but restless to be doing, to bring forth in some language he has yet to learn the conviction that is growing within him — that the kingdom of God is here and he will bring it to vivid reality.
Mark’s comment has the bleak clarity of a tree in winter: “He was among the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” The elements of this scene are few. Jesus is in the wilderness with the Spirit, with Satan, with wild beasts, and with the angels — all of them at the same time.
He is in the wilderness for forty days, but this is New Testament shorthand for a very long time. Truth is, we don’t know how long this wilderness experience lasted. It doesn’t seem to be Mark’s point anyway. He offers up the whole scenario with just enough detail to fire the imagination.
But why now? Why, after the glory of heaven’s affirmation, is Jesus thrown to the wild beasts and the towering silence of the desert? Couldn’t he be allowed to bask, if only for a little while, in the warmth of that love? Will it be enough to get him through this ordeal?
We can view the timing of this experience in different ways. Some Christians will see the desert after the river as a necessary come-down, a way of keeping Jesus from getting above himself. In this scenario, the loving affirmation of God is followed by trials that keep Jesus from pride, keep him tethered to God and passive. He will need to crawl before he walks.
We often hear something like this in the wake of a personal tragedy. This is the ‘Olympic Marathon’ approach to the trials that scourge us. The heavier the burden, the deeper the pit, the more God’s confidence in us will be seen they say. Try to see it as a backhanded compliment on how much suffering we can bear. Or so well-meaning people say.
The reality is that we are dropped in the wilderness, far removed from God. Far enough away that shock turns to guilt and then despair as we scrabble through our conscience to find the grievous sin that brought this on. But that is not how God acts.
There is another angle. Matthew and Luke fill out the story they borrow from Mark by picturing the three classic confrontations between Satan and Jesus: the hunger of great bodily need; the lure of suicide disguised as a false form of faith; and a naked play for enormous power. The trials and temptations that Jesus faces are those which harrow each of us to one degree or another. It is typical of us to see our limitations in stark outline and to desperately grasp at power offered, no matter the price. What Jesus goes through is a primer for meditation on the perversion of our bodily needs, our need to be recognized, and our need for agency.
Jesus is us in his full humanity.
Why now? Because to announce good news to the poor, to proclaim release for prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, Jesus needs to learn how to pray.
This is more than the saying of prayers in the synagogue along with everyone else. It is more than the prayers that open and close each day. It is more than the gratitude expressed for food and home and the necessities of life.
It is the discovery of his true self.
Call it prayer, call it meditation — this is how Jesus guts it out in the face of evil. To truly know himself and to understand who God is for him, he opens the door to all his fears and temptations. Meeting them — not denying them — is part of his combat training.
He comes to terms with the taunts he has faced all his life and the faces that go with them. He admits into his consciousness the dreams and fantasies he has buried. He shatters the idols of God that have distorted God’s justice into capricious judgment. He unlearns the harmful perceptions of God he has unconsciously collected all his life. All this takes time and effort.
This is how God loves him and the Spirit guides him. This is how he will meet his true self. And when he is cursed by the religious authorities, mocked by his family, harangued by the demons, and deserted by his best friends, he will reach back into himself for that assurance.
This journey into himself through prayer is the source of his exceptional imagination. We see it in his penetrating and sometimes enigmatic parables. He makes connections between phrases of scripture, the chance remarks he’s puzzled over, the stories he’s grown up with, for now he sees them in a new light.
When he later says, ‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock,’ he speaks from experience. Through prayer, he has knocked at the door of his deepest self and entered in. Like the woman in the parable scouring her house for the lost coin, there is no part of himself he has overlooked or ignored.
So, when the devil comes to the end of all his temptations and departs, “biding his time,” as Luke puts it, Jesus is ready. Armed with the Spirit, he sets out for Galilee to begin the revolution of liberation and healing.
And what has this to do with us? We find ourselves in a desert place, famished and weary and surrounded by wild beasts. We don’t know how to pray, we can be knocked over by a feather when tempted, and we don’t see any angels around us.
When our spirit responds to the Spirit, when we open up to all that God promises, we feel ourselves to be children of God. If, after that, we feel let down, angry, disappointed, it is not unusual and it doesn’t mean we’re no longer within God’s embrace. It simply means that parts of ourselves are still living in fear of God. We may have a smile on our lips while our fists are still clenched. We are in judgement of ourselves, resisting the forgiveness of the Spirit that enlivens our hearts of stone.
To us Jesus says, “Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”
The Spirit lifts us, sets us on our feet, and lightens the path before us. It’s a path through time, our forty days or forty years.