It’s all a question of knowing where we are going. The first two readings set it up very clearly—in Lent we are heading once more to the Baptismal waters of Easter—but, to paraphrase Eliot, do we go all that way for a birth or a death? … It’s all a question of knowing where we are going.
A friend of mine worked for these past few years with refugees in East Africa—displaced, hungry, shattered people. Even among outcasts there are outcasts, the weakest of the weak—in particular the HIV positive who with little care and minimal medication quickly develop full-blown AIDS. And there in East Africa AIDS it isn’t a rarity, isn’t confined to any one portion of the community, AIDS is everywhere. Yet, for all it is common, its fear dissolves communities as it works the complete isolation of its sufferers. Even what little they have, what little they have been able to keep, is stripped from them as gradually they are edged out of the meagre comforts of the community. Figuratively, and then literally, pushed to the edge and beyond until they are driven into the desert to die alone and un-mourned. Only the kindness of strangers—people like my friend—stands between them and a forgotten death. Hands that will touch, and lift up and carry them back, out of the desert’s dryness, into the oasis of human care, to know life again before they must leave it.
Such a different desert from the one where Jesus, drenched still from the Jordan, is driven by the spirit. Despite the accusation and the testing this desert is for Jesus a place of life, a place of wild but ministering spirits, a place of calling. There, like the great prophets before him, like Moses and Elijah, he is nourished, cared for, and grows to new life, so that he can walk from the desert’s womb and storm Galilee with his message of urgent life: “Spring is here. Something new is here. God is here. Change! Believe the good news!”
Two very different experiences of desert. Womb or tomb? A holy place or a horror? It’s all a question of knowing where we are going. The spirit of life drives Jesus into the desert to be born again. The spirit of death drives the refugee into the desert to dwindle and die.
Entering Lent, we have to ask where we are being driven, and—more—which spirits are doing the driving. Mark paints a picture of Jesus in constant dialogue with angels and demons, companioned by spirits who attract him or repel him, care for him or plot his downfall. He is on first-name terms with darkness. He is fed at the hand of angels. Our difference from Jesus is not that he is a-swim in a sea of spirits and we are not but, rather, that he can tell them apart while we struggle even to feel their influence.
But recognising their influence, and telling them apart, is the key. Who is leading me into Lent? Friend or foe? If I know that I know whether to go hopefully into the desert or to kick and scream and cry out for rescue.
These are the Lenten questions. They are prior to questions of what we will do for Lent. Of what we will give up. Of what we will take up. Of fasting, charity, and prayer. The first question is “Who wants us to do any of this?” Which spirits guide us? Do we go all that way for a birth or a death? … It is all a question of knowing where we are going.