Back in the Fall, a friend of mine from seminary posted a picture of the inside of the church he serves. Rob’s the rector at St. John’s Lafayette Square in Washington, DC, and they were recording a service of some sort that week when he took the photo. He pointed out the hymn board up in the balcony; a hymn board as you might expect has the day’s hymn numbers posted, and some, like this one, also announce the liturgical day. What Rob highlighted was that the hymn board still proclaimed that it was the Third Sunday in Lent even though it now was October. The date of the posted Sunday was March 15, presumably the last Sunday they held in-person services at that parish. I commented that perhaps it should have read the 34th Sunday in Lent as it had been that long since the pandemic had closed things down, and it certainly still felt like Lent. And, if we were to stick to my way of counting, then today would be the 52nd Sunday in Lent rather than the 1st. Because this year has felt like that, right? Like we’re in some sort of Narnian existence from The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, except instead of it always being winter and never Christmas, for us it’s always Lent and never Easter.
And so I want to just name that as we begin this new Lenten journey today. What we’re really doing is metaphorically walking out of the wilderness grizzled and hardened by the experience of COVID-19 this past year in order that we might turn right around and head back in for another foray into the desert. We’re heading back in for another go. And what Mark tells us about Jesus’ time in the desert is fairly brief. He writes that after Jesus’ baptism by John, “the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” That’s it. Nothing about the three temptations from the evil one and the responses Jesus gives. No words about turning stones into challah or detailing Jesus being whisked to the precipice of the temple. Just that he was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan, and he was with the wild beasts and the angels attended him. Pretty stark frankly at a verse and a half.
As you know I’ve spent my fair share of time in the wilderness both metaphorically and literally. My deep love of being in the outdoors has led me to study the times of wilderness experiences in our lives. And I know without a shadow of even the tiniest bit of doubt that when we are alone in the wilderness with no companions but our own thoughts the wild beasts tend to show up. When we give ourselves quiet, our minds begin churning through the things in our past. We remember events from long ago, words perhaps spoken years before that we wish we could wrangle back into our mouths. Or times when we felt discouraged, or bullied, or scared. Or simply the fear we have of being alone. With abundant quiet for the first time in a long time, our minds—after having run through the lists of things we need to do— set about the task of processing past events, trying to make meaning of them.
Trying to find healing. Of becoming who God beckons us to be.
So when Mark tells us that Jesus spent time in the wilderness and wild beasts appeared, I’m not at all surprised. We’ve seen some different ones this past year, haven’t we? When we hit that brick wall and we just can’t anymore. There might not be anything that precipitates this response other than just life in a pandemic. It’s the countless little things of that life right now: of getting the kids on Zoom and trying to both teach them and work at the same time. Or trying to finagle the online systems in order to get our parents vaccinated. Or canceling vacation plans yet again. Or just wanting and needing a hug from a friend. Or facing yet another week of less income. Or having a cold and getting disdainful stares when you sneeze behind your mask. Or wanting to hold a service for a parent that died. Or dealing with routine health appointments. Or watching unsettling events on the news. Or wanting communion at church. Or longing to sit in a darkened theater to watch a film. Or being with the same people in the same four walls for about a year and wanting to get some space. Or quarantining because you have been a close contact. Or, well, you know, all of this. Wild beasts. And there’s not been much real time to process much of anything because it’s been relentless. It’s been a year in the wilderness of Lent.
But I love Mark’s next line the most: the angels waited on him. While Jesus spent those forty days in the wilderness not eating a thing, when the wild beasts show up, the angels of God come to bring him comfort. To sustain him. To help him through it all. Mark isn’t specific about their actions, but it isn’t really needed. We just know that in the midst of a trying time, Jesus wasn’t completely alone.
As we begin this new excursion into the wilderness, I want to say a few things as your priest. First, as I’ve already mentioned, we’ve been living in the wilderness for almost a year now. This has taken a tremendous toll on us, and there will be days when we all just need a break. Please, be gentle with yourself and those you live with. If you need to sit on the couch and binge watch WandaVision rather than finishing the dishes, please do that. Those dirty plates and cups will get done soon enough, and you’re not a horrible person if you let it go every so often. That feeling of insecurity or anger at yourself for taking a break is not from God; it is certainly a wild beast. Do not give in to the temptation of proclaiming yourself bad because you needed a respite.
Second, even though it is Lent and just on Wednesday I invited you in the name of the Church to a season of fasting and self-denial, if any sort of practice you feel you should undertake isn’t bringing you closer to God, don’t do it. We’ve been through a year-long experience of fasting and self-denial, of not being with those we love and abstaining from hugs and celebration. We’ve been doing the work of Lent already. We began this liturgical season with ashes as a reminder that we are indeed mortal but as we approach 500,000 pandemic related deaths here in the US alone, I think most of us needn’t worry about forgetting that point this year. So let me say it again, choosing to give up chocolate or meat or sugar or something else is all fine and good, but this may not be the year to do it if it is just causing you extra anxiety.
I’m reminded of a clergy person I heard about who served a parish along the Gulf Coast and gave up smoking a week or two before Katrina hit. Undeterred he kept at his intention following that catastrophic event. After some time, one of his neighboring colleagues noticed a newly emerging shortness of temper and gently told him that there would be another season to conquer his nicotine addiction. That trying to do so while ministering and providing hope to a community devastated by a hurricane in addition to facing similar things at his own home was not wise. That there was more than enough on his plate already. You should do likewise, with one small caveat: if an addiction of any kind is disrupting your life significantly or you’re hearing from a loved one that things are getting worse, please seek the help you need. Call me or reach out to your primary care provider or a trusted friend. While we’ve been in the desert for 52 weeks, you don’t want to push yourself even further in if you can avoid it. The same holds true if you’re experiencing a deeper onset of depression, or if your anger is getting the better of you, or you’re facing trouble in your marriage. Please reach out.
Finally, know that you are not alone. Mark tells us that there are angels of God in the wilderness in addition to all the wild beasts who’ve found their way to you. God sends messengers to provide comfort and healing as we traverse these difficult times of life. And even more so we know that Jesus himself walked this way before us. Yes, we encounter wild beasts, but Jesus did so first. We can be certain that we have a God who never leaves us or forsakes us. A God who knows the pain and suffering we face and desires for us to find grace. Let me say it again: you are not alone.
I do not know when the Lent we are in will finally end, when it will be that we emerge from the wilderness. I’m not sure how this extended time will impact our lives. I just hold to the belief that eventually we will emerge, that we will find signs of new life, and that we will experience the good news Jesus proclaimed that the kingdom of God is here among us right now. I trust we can continue to hope that the beauty and joy of the resurrection will fill us and our world, and we will find lasting healing and become the people God has called us to be.