The Spirit Catches Us and We Rise

Photo by Emma van Sant on Unsplash

”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.

Unveiling Reality

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What in Greek was called epiphaniea meant the appearance, the arrival of a divinity among mortals . . . Epiphany thus interrupts the everyday flow of time and enters as one privileged moment when we intuitively grasp a deeper, more essential reality hidden in things and persons. — Czeslaw Milosz, A Book of Luminous Things

In Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King, the blustering, bumbling, red-faced, and violently suffering protagonist, confides to us that, “when things got very bad I often looked into books to see whether I could find some helpful words, and one day I read, ‘The forgiveness of sins is perpetual and righteousness first is not required.’ This impressed me so deeply that I went around saying it to myself.”

This is an insight that arrives unexpectedly, cracking open his hard and aching heart, and setting him on a picaresque journey of self-discovery to Africa, where he learns humility and wisdom — and where he finally feels that his spirit is no longer slave to his body. It’s an epiphany, a moment when he understands his reality in a way that he never could have before.

It is reminiscent of another story, one that Jesus told, in which a young man, impatient and strident in his demands, took his inheritance and left for a far country, breaking his father’s heart and setting ablaze a fire of resentment in his older brother. Later, after his money has burned up in moments of profligacy that have begun to blur and fade, he takes whatever work he can to sustain himself. One day, while mucking out the pig pen of a farmer outside the city, he “comes to himself,” a telling phrase that both reveals the split within himself as well as the potential of reintegration. It’s an epiphany that wells up within him while he is up to his knees in pigs, proving that a life-transforming moment can break in on us, no matter where we find ourselves.

Czeslaw Milosz calls an epiphany “an unveiling of reality” in his international anthology of poetry, A Book of Luminous Things. He writes of ancient cultures in which streams were inhabited by the naiads and forests by the dryads, and the gods sometimes walked among humans. “Not rarely, they would visit households and were recognized by hosts.” Abraham entertains God in the guise of three travelers and later, “the epiphany as appearance, the arrival of Christ, occupies an important place in the New Testament.”

We are living, says Milosz, in a world that has been deprived of clear-cut outlines and has been drained of color. This deprivation is not much helped, he continues, by theology, science, and philosophy. While they try to provide cures for nihilism, they are not usually effective, and instead, give us descriptions that simply confirm our condition.

Poetry, however, looks at the singular rather than the general; it focuses on the leaf, not the forest, and thus it cannot help but see the variations, the diversity, the abundance of throbbing, colorful life. A poem, by describing a particular moment of present reality, illuminates the human experience and brings the divine into the mundane. A poem bears epiphanies.

***

Epiphany, from a Greek word for ‘manifestation’ or ‘appearance’, is for Christians the season after Advent and Christmas in which we celebrate the unveiling—just for a moment—of the divine nature of Christ, that moment in which a young Jewish carpenter arises from baptism in the waters of the River Jordan, as the heavens split open above him and the voice of God declares him to be his beloved son.

It is just a breath, a heart’s beat, a hummingbird’s jeweled flash of winged light, a disturbance in the space-time continuum, but it is gratefully grasped by Jesus. John the Baptist hears it too; they share a look between them, John all fire and sword and Jesus with a muscular tenderness.

We who watch from the riverbank twenty-one centuries later may only hear thunder in a cloudless sky and shrug:

“Endless invention, endless experiment,

Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;

Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;

Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.”1

John, with his fierce, hooded, hawk’s eyes, understands the moment: it reverberates in his chest like a bell. This is the moment he has prepared for all his life; it is here now, and he gives himself to it without hesitation. John had disciples, followers, people who revered him and did not shrink from his shouts into the desert wind. ‘He must increase, and I must decrease,’ he thinks. A gate, sensed but hidden, swings open behind his eyes and he steps through and knows somehow, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that he will not live to see this King crowned.

“God Speaks:

It is innocence that is full and experience

that is empty.

It is innocence that wins and experience that loses.

It is innocence that is young and experience that

is old.

It is innocence that grows and experience that

wanes.”2

***

You wonder if these epiphanies can be prepared for. If they add to the quality of life, then shouldn’t we figure out a way to generate them? Yet, they come when we need them and not before. They are gifts and as gifts, we accept them or misuse them. But, faith, like poetry, cannot be duplicated: every experience is a new reading of meaning.

“If we could get the hang of it entirely

It would take too long;

All we know is the splash of words in passing

And falling twigs of song,

And when we try to eavesdrop on the great

Presences it is rarely

That by a stroke of luck we can appropriate

Even a phrase entirely.”3

Milosz shows us that epiphanies are the inbreaking of the divine in unexpected ways and places. They are ‘aha’ moments, flashes of intuition that reveal an eternity in a grain of sand. Poems may carry epiphanies for us, Nature may as well. We learn to see with our hearts as well as with our heads.

“Cease to dwell on days gone by

and to brood over past history.

Here and now I will do a new thing;

this moment it will break from the bud.

Can you not perceive it?” (Isa. 43: 18,19)

The season of Epiphany is also a time to reflect on the experience of the magi, the travelers from another land, who searched with mind and heart for the Christ child, leaving behind their familiar ways and traditions for something or someone they could not be sure would accept them.

Thus, it is a season to reflect on and seek out what unifies all Christians. Michael Mayne, the former dean of Westminster, wrote in Responding to the Light, “We Christians are as diverse and varied as the colors of the rainbow . . . Though at one level we are divided and have been divided by history into our separate traditions, yet there is a deeper truth, for those with eyes to see . . . All who believe that in Jesus we see God and put their faith in him are at the deepest level already one in Christ4

An epiphany is a manifestation, an appearance, perhaps of something that was always there but overlooked or excluded out of habit and tradition, brushed aside in our haste—only to become, when revealed, so compelling that we can’t take our eyes off it.

That which changes us from the inside may be the outside seen through new eyes.

  1. Eliot, T. S. Choruses from ‘The Rock’ 1, Collected Poems 1909-1962. Harcourt, 1963.
  2. Péguy, Charles. “Innocence and Experience,” God Speaks. Trans. by Julian Green. Pantheon, 1943.
  3. MacNeice, Louis. ‘Entirely’, Collected Poems. Faber, 2007, p. 171.
  4. Mayne, Michael. Responding to the Light. Canterbury Press, 2017, pp. 87-88.

Photo: Joel Valve, Unsplash.com