Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.John 3.5
I have understood something new about Lent this year.
It starts with a question: Why did Jesus go into the wilderness immediately after his baptism?
I’ve always imagined Jesus discerning who and what he was over thirty years and coming to baptism to make this inner knowledge visible. He comes up out of the water; the dove descends; God speaks; who and what Jesus is is now revealed to us. Jesus is driven (Mark 1.12) or led (Matthew 4.1, Luke 4.1) into the wilderness where he is tempted to make God’s mission an ego trip but manages to avert each death trap.
This year, I have seen differently.
As a neuron does not know mind, we humans do not know the mind of God. There may be moments when we gain a bigger perspective, but mostly we can only know the next step. We follow breadcrumbs. Of course, Jesus had a sense of who and what he was; I imagine him with authority and a growing sense of purpose; but all he knew that day was that the next step, in obedience to God, was to go for baptism.
Sometimes, something happens to some people that becomes the defining moment of their lives. I think this is what happened to Jesus. It is not that he didn’t know of God’s love. It is not that he hadn’t studied, learnt, prayed, and had a natural affinity for God. But on that morning, as he came up out of the water of baptism in the River Jordan, something was shown that he couldn’t have prepared for or arranged.
“Thou are my son, my beloved; with thee, I am well pleased.”
This sort of experience has a profound, double effect. There is nothing more powerful and affirming to receive a touch from God. That ‘thou’ is an expression of intimacy and endearment. Nothing is more important than to know, without a doubt, that one is the beloved of God. That touch of love changes a person. It is profoundly reassuring and alleviating; you can let go.
At the same time, it is disturbing, dismantling, and shakes the foundations. The world is turned upside down. Everything you thought you knew is called into question. You are not who or what you thought. Your internal working model of the world is shown to be a house of cards you made to make sense of your experiences up to now; God has breathed upon it and it has collapsed. There were never foundations to that construction.
No wonder then, the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness. He needed to be alone. He needed to think. It was important not to tell others about this experience because people try to make meaning; they try to make sense, construct a theory, fit it into their theology, and tell you what to do.
People will tell you where they’ve goneJoni Mitchell, Amelia
They’ll tell you where to go
But till you get there yourself you never really know
Only the wild beasts understand: creatures of the Cosmos, they have always known they are beloved of God. They haven’t been ‘civilised’. Their silence is a “regard beyond desire” (Rowan Williams, Lost Icons, p. 161).
The things that ignore us save us in the end. Their presence awakens silence in us; they refresh our courage with the purity of their detachment.Belden C Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes, p. 54
In the wilderness, as a beloved of the God, all the ways in which one stakes a claim in the world crumple.
Security and survival, turning stones into bread, the practical matters of staying alive: these are relativised by a more profound sense of holding.
Affection and esteem, acclaim from the spectacle of being caught if you leap, claiming your place in people’s hearts and approval: these are undermined by the ultimate belonging.
Power and control, possessing the whole world, having your little fiefdom: you see that this is a misreading of the situation; you have never had any sovereignty.
We all wrestle with these three: Am I safe? Do I belong? Who is in control? To know we are beloved daughters and sons of the God who is well pleased with us is to have these questions answered once and for all: Yes; Yes; God.
In this, there is a further dismantling. Before the loving touch of God, you are somebody: you have a home, possessions; people like you, they value you; and you have agency: you work; you make a difference. You have justified your existence and proved your worth.
Now, you are nobody: your life is not about you. You have nowhere to lay your head: no treasures to store; nothing to take for the journey; now you are no longer held in being by people’s approbation: woe to you when all speak well of you; now you are not to be anxious: you are no longer in charge of what you fondly thought was ‘your’ life; now there is rest; the burden is light.
Love says ‘I am everything.’Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj
Wisdom says ‘I am nothing.’
Between the two, my life flows.
This is what Jesus is wrestling with in the wilderness. The rug has been pulled out from under his feet and he is falling into the arms of God. He has to let go of all the ways he has grown used to holding himself.
Lent is not primarily about the awareness of dust and death, a practice of repentance, and the discipline of giving something up or taking something on. It is allowing that, just maybe, thou art God’s beloved daughter, and thou art God’s beloved son, and that with thee God is well pleased. And if that is true (which it is) then how might you let this revelation rock the foundations of your life?
Now I see how my patterns of consumption, entertainment, productivity, busyness, and worry are defences against the radical indigence and consummation of being a daughter or son of God. Now the practice and discipline of Lent make sense.