We have arrived at the first Sunday in Lent and on Wednesday we will begin our Lent study program with reflections on the mystic Dame Julian of Norwich.
This Sunday we begin with the traditional gospel that leads us into Lent. It is traditional and it is familiar. To say that is to poke rather roughly at one of the most calloused, obtuse and frustrating obstacles to Christian faith – the deadening illusion of our familiarity with the scriptures and its consequences: that (a) we don’t read them with expectancy and (b) we are not startled and the light does not break through. The most fundamental exercise in approaching such scriptures is to read repeatedly until the familiarity shreds away and the text starts to feel strange. It is an exercise, a discipline, in defamiliarisation.
The text that is our portal into Lent, Matthew 4.1: reads quite starkly, “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.”
The normal device of speech falters as our literal understanding is confronted by another order of reality operating in the world. Jesus is led by the Spirit, by God; this tangible and real human figure is influenced by another dimension; another being and is directed into an encounter with a malevolent evil power. With this thought dimensions of reality collide; the world as we assume it to be, suddenly assumes a different appearance. Questions explode into uncomfortable clarity – what has God to do with the Devil? Is God really in charge here? If we were scripting this text for a film, someone would be screaming a warning, ‘Don’t go Jesus!” We customarily evade such questions by literary subterfuge: reminding ourselves that this is all metaphor, mythology and symbols; and certainly not to be taken literally. Except – what if all speech and not just metaphor and myth is a mirror for a reality beyond our grasp?
Of course metaphor, myth and symbolism are present – the back story to this gospel is the story of the wilderness in which Israel wandered for forty years enroute to the Promised Land; it is the story of their being tested by God; it’s the story of their failure. But later (after the exile) in the literature of Israel God is no longer the tester of his people – that job is handed over to Satan as the tester or tempter (Job 1-2; Zech.3:1-2; 1 Chr.21:1.) The assumption is that the devil remains under God’s ultimate control. Theologically that presents some problems.
How does the testing begin? It is preceded by that detail of the forty days and nights of fasting which connects with the story of Israel and of course it all takes place in the wilderness, recalling the places of Israel’s wanderings – but amidst these echoes, resonances and allusions is the fact that Jesus is in a reduced and weakened state when the tempter makes his appearance.
From our own knowledge or experience we have some idea of what happens to the body and the mind when food is denied for a long period – the boundaries of how we perceive our world may begin to change. Are we talking about hallucinations? Maybe. I wouldn’t rule them out – but enough at this point to note that mental or spiritual boundaries may shift and in the process Jesus becomes more vulnerable.
Duccio, di Buoninsegna, d. 1319
While being physically depleted and vulnerable over an extended period changes the boundaries of how we see the world, to also be in the wilderness at the same time accentuates these changes in perception – the loneliness, the space, the harshness of the place – challenges us, reduces us. This is the context for real testing – taken when the subject may be at a low ebb physically, mentally and spiritually – and when the world feels strange. It is in this alienated context that Jesus discovers and reveals who he is, as he faithfully resists the intense psychic assaults of the devil.