So we hear, just after Jesus’ baptism, he is driven by the Spirit into the desert where he’s alone and tempted. The image of desert recurs repeatedly in the Scriptures, and I would say the desert experience recurs repeatedly in our own lives. We know the desert of barren senselessness when we have trouble seeing our way through the chaos and confusion which surrounds us… when we have a sense of being lost or abandoned or desiccated, feeling like we’re trudging on the surface of sinking sand, unable to find our own way out. In those desert times of our lives, life may seem like a vicious circle, as senseless as a dog chasing its tail. That is a sense of the desert, even if you happen to be living in or visiting New England.
The word desert comes from the Latin deserere: the root de (to separate) and serere (to knit). Desere: to be unknitted, to be unraveled or torn apart from the fabric of where or to whom we belong. It may mean to lose our identity. That is the desert: a time when we feel very much alone. Perhaps it’s an arid time of desertion, of silence, of stripping, of dismantling. That’s the desert, for Jesus and for us. The Trappist monk Charles Cummings says: “In the desert we go on serving the God whom we do not see, loving [the God] whom we do not feel, adoring [the God] whom we do not understand and thanking [the God] who has taken everything from us but [God’s own self],” a God whom we may be unable to even recognize. [i] That is the desert experience. Jesus is back in the desert many times in his life, up until the very end. When he cries out from the cross to the God whom he calls “Father”: “Why O why have you forsaken me?” this is not the first time he has felt deserted, that is, in the desert.
Just after his baptism, Jesus was alone in the desert. No witnesses. For the disciples to have known about Jesus’ desert experience – and for us to know about it, what we read in Gospels – Jesus would have had to tell this story on himself… he being alone… and tempted… in every way that we are.[ii] He tells the story on himself to help us. If Jesus is going to meet us, know us, love us, save us, then he will have to know where and how to find us. He must have lived like us, facing what we face, especially in the desert… when we are accosted by our own temptation.
Jesus was tempted in areas where he already had some strength, and I think also for us. Curiously enough, we are most vulnerable to temptation where we are strong. If you’ve been given the gift of love, then you also have the power to seduce. If you are articulate, then you can use language powerfully, for better and for worse. If you’ve been given the gift of decisiveness, then you have the real power to judge and condemn. If you are compassionate, you can get overwhelmed by the suffering that surrounds you.” If you are young, you can be tempted with the delusion of immortality. If you are beautiful – look beautiful, sound beautiful, feel beautiful – you can be as luring as the ancient Sirens, and also as lost. If you are old, you can be tempted with resentment or despair for a world slipping through your fingers. If you are well, you can be tempted to take it all for granted: your mind, your body, your work. If you are good, you can be tempted to believe that you are never good enough. We are most susceptible to be tempted in areas where we have some strength. C. S. Lewis said, “it’s not our weaknesses that will keep us out of heaven.”
We are easy preys for temptation when we are in the desert because in the desert, we are often very exposed and hungry and thirsty. This is why the desert is not only often a time of temptation but can also be a time of grace. In this arid time of desertion, of silence, of stripping, of dismantling, there is a kind of vacuous space. It may well be that our eyes and ears and desires are finally clear enough, our heart open enough, our hands empty enough, our will desperate enough for us to receive what God has for us. That’s the redemption of the desert. “The desert,” to quote Charles Cummings again, “is the weaning process in which the child comes to love the mother more than the milk.”
Jesus reminds us that we are not alone in the desert, and that Jesus has gone there before us, and that he is with us. There in the desert Jesus is the living water, and the bread from heaven. He is the way and the guide. He is the light in the night. He is the desert serpent who gives life to all who look on it to be saved. In a sense Jesus is the desert: the one who has overcome temptation and desiccation and who offers us grace for the same… because he has been there, before us, which is worth remembering.
There is an ancient story told from the Egyptian desert of an old widow who had lived near an enclosed monastery since she was a little girl. She had never once met any of the monks who lived inside this monastery… except on this one day when she met a monk, who, for a few moments, had stepped outside the enclosure of the monastery walls. The old widow asked the monk the question she had wanted to ask all her life: “What do you do in there?” The old monk gave a sigh, looked to the heavens, and then said, “We fall down and we get up again. We fall down and we get up again. We fall down and we get up again.”
The Good News is that Jesus, who is lifted high upon the cross, lifts us, holds us with those nail-torn hands, into a loving embrace, we who are prone to fall down. Jesus, who goes before us in the desert, who offers to rescue us, who protects us, who heals us, who feeds us… this same Jesus stands ready, when we’ve missed it all, forgotten it all, denied it all, run from it all. Jesus stands ready to find us and feed us and forgive us, again and again and again. The good news is that roses do bloom again, even in your desert.
[i] Charles Cummings, “Job’s Desert Experience,” in Studies in Formative Spirituality, vol. 1, No. 2; pp. 227-236.
[ii] Letter to the Hebrews 4:14-16.
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