The very first liturgical action in the Rite of Baptism isn’t pouring water – it is marking the one receiving baptism with the sign of the cross – traced on the forehead. At the same time speaking the words, “I claim you for Christ…” They are powerful words, words of life and death. Words that mark a new beginning. “I claim you for Christ…” This is who you are and whose you are. And now off you go into the world, into the wilderness of life, among the beasts and the angels among us.
“It happened in those days that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized in the Jordan by John. On coming up out of the water he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit, like a dove, descending upon him. And a voice came from the heavens, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.’ The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan. He was among wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him.” (Mark 1:9-13)
“You are my beloved Son” – this is who you are and now off into the world you go. In St. Mark’s account, the Spirit did not lead Jesus into the wilderness, the Spirit drove Him. He was there forty days. He was tempted by the spiritual world and was threatened by the natural world. No explanation about the nature of the temptations. Short, sweet and to the point. It is easy to fly right by St. Mark’s three sentence narrative of the Baptism and 40 days in the wilderness. But I would point out some lessons for our own wilderness trek.
First, Jesus did not choose the wilderness. I find this detail reassuring. We don’t choose to enter the wilderness. We don’t volunteer for pain, loss, danger, or terror. But the wilderness happens, anyway. Whether it comes to us in the shape of a hospital waiting room, a prickly relationship, an incorrigible child, a sudden death, or a trust badly broken, another school shooting…the wilderness appears at our doorsteps, unbidden and unwelcome. And yes, when faced with these things not of our choosing, we ask “where is God in all this? Does He want me to suffer? What am I supposed to do with all this?” We are out there beyond our safety zone. But sometimes the wilderness of those places, even while dangerous, are places of holiness when we remember who we are and whose we are. The whisper is ever present: “You are my beloved, I have claimed you for my own.”
Second lesson: the struggle is long. Our wilderness journeys sometimes last a very long time – 40 minutes, 40 hours, 40 days, 40 years. It can last a very long time. The passage of time can be maddeningly slow for the doctor to call with the results, to hear whether your child is safe, for the first light of dawn at the end of an endless night. All the while, knowing the next day would be another confrontation of mind, spirit, and body. The days and nights taking their toll. And we are not used to the protracted and delayed. We are people of Amazon Prime delivery – everything solved in two days. The long wilderness struggle saps our energy and leads to easy discouragement or despair. Again, we ask, “why does this suffering continue? Why are our prayers unanswered? Where is God?” Our pain and sorrow can cloud and obscure our memory.
At his baptism, Jesus heard the absolute truth about who he was. “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” That was the easy part. The much harder part came in the wilderness when the memory of his Father’s voice from heaven faded, and he had to remember and figure out how to be God’s beloved in a lonely wasteland. We have the same challenge.
Before we did anything right or wrong, before our first thoughts or words, God has known us. God has already whispered and continues to whisper, “You are my beloved, I have claimed you for my own.” From the beginning, until we rest in Christ at life’s end, the wilderness struggle is our encounter with the elements and the wild beasts trying to tell us we are someone else, we belong to someone else – we belong to no one. Our peers, society, advertising, television, social media have a go at telling us who we are. But only God can do that. Everything else is temptation.
Maybe we, like Jesus, need long stints in the wilderness to learn what it really means to be God’s beloved. Because the unnerving fact is: we can be beloved and beset with troubles at the same time. We can be beloved and unsafe at the same time. Then we can understand the words of Song of Songs 2, about who we are and whose we are – beloved of God. “My [God] belongs to me and I to him. He says to me: “Set me as a seal on your heart, as a seal on your arm; For stern as death is love, relentless as the nether world …; its flames are a blazing fire. Deep waters cannot quench love, nor floods sweep it away.” In the wilderness, we can learn the love that survives is salvific, not sentimental.
The third lesson: there were angels in the wilderness. This, too, is a startling and comforting truth — one that we can recognize if we open our eyes and take a good look around. Somehow, somewhere, help comes. Rest comes. Solace comes. Granted, our angels don’t always appear in the forms we might prefer, but they come. They are the hands on our shoulders; the encouragement and support of calls, texts, and notes; the ears that listen; the friend who gives you a break so that you can have a moment of downtime or simply get out of the house. Angels whisper, angels cook, angels walk into our lives. Angels are there in the 40 minutes, 40 hours, 40 days, or 40 years, ever ready to minister to us.
There you have it: (1) Jesus didn’t choose the wilderness, (2) the struggle is long, and (3) there are angels in the wilderness. In Lent or in life, may we walk with courage into the wildernesses we can’t choose or avoid. May our long sojourns teach us who we really are. When angels in all their secret guises whisper “beloved” into our ears, may we listen and believe – We are beloved of God.
Inspired by “Into the Wild” by Debie Thomas