I wrote a devotional some time ago for the Our Bible App folks — Our Bible is an app specifically geared toward LGBTQ* Christians, and I used a meditation I frequently consider during Lent, that of Jesus in the wilderness as recorded in the Gospel of Mark. I invite you to consider signing up for Our Bible App and checking it out. You can (I think) find my submission by searching on my name, Catharine Clarenbach. I also include the text below, so you can get an idea of what the folks at Our Bible App are accepting. ((Edited to add: Turns out I have three sets of devotional reflections over on Our Bible App. They only just told me about the one this morning!))
9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved;[h]with you I am well pleased.”12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news[i] of God,[j] 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near;[k] repent, and believe in the good news.”[l] (NRSV)
I love the way the Gospel of Mark, written in the terse, clear language most common in the earlier Hebrew Bible leaves so much room for our own understanding. Mark’s description of Jesus going into the wilderness echoes for me the experience of the People of Israel meeting God intimately over forty years, the words of wise poets, and the wisdom of other ancient myths and heroes. These short, terse passages also invite us to put ourselves into the scene and inquire into the realities of our own hearts.
The opening of this Gospel invites us to dare to learn from our aloneness and be driven by the Spirit.
What do I mean by that?
In this Gospel, the baptism of Jesus is not necessarily the big public event that we hear about in other Gospels. In this version, it is Jesus who see the Spirit descend upon him and who hears, “You are my beloved Son,” and it lacks the imperative to others, “Listen to him.”
It is Jesus himself who without a doubt experiences this amazing moment that is going to lead into his understanding of his ministry. I imagine Jesus experiencing the Spirit like a dove, descending gently, soft gray feathers and wings, the gentle settling of a mother bird over his shoulders.
And then, and then suddenly, with no transition, we read, that the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness. What a transformation, from the “in the form of a dove.” This doesn’t sound like the peaceful dove we just heard about.
When have you felt driven away from your daily life by the Spirit of Life and Source of Love? When have you felt the necessity to take time with what the poet David Whyte calls, “the sweet confinement / of your own aloneness”?
Jesus attends to the Holy Spirit. Jesus receives to the love God the loving Parent poured forth upon him in his baptism. A baptism that others enter into as “repentance,” and cleansing. And then Jesus is driven into the wilderness. As soon as he comes up from the water, what has felt like gentle cleansing becomes an irresistible call, even a hard push into the wilderness.
The wilderness of the Bible is not a National Park, inviting us to well-worn trails and friendly bodies of water.
Over and over again in the words of Hebrew prophets, we hear how the Israelites had a love affair with God in the wilderness. How they had to rely solely on God for their sustenance, for their guidance and very lives. How God was the center of their lives and understanding. But it’s also a terrifying place.
It is a place where Jesus meets Satan, also called Shaitan, or “the stumbling block,” the tempter. And in this Gospel, we do not learn what the writer thinks was offered to Jesus. We see no parapet, no offer of worldly kingship or wealth. We simply learn that he was tempted.
For Christians reading this passage carefully, “he was tempted” is a shocking thing to take in. It’s not, “Satan offered him the wealth and power of the world.” It’s not, “Satan was unsuccessful in his attempts to tempt Jesus.” Rather, it’s something much more difficult.
Jesus was tempted.
Jesus was tempted.
Jesus, in this version of this pivotal moment, is tempted by the road block of Satan. What are our road blocks? What are our temptations? What must we look clearly in the face to resist?
Is it complicity with injustice? Is it our own oppression and need to respond? It is something seeming simpler, like an obsession with television or food?
We can take comfort in this passage by seeing that, according to Mark, we are not the only ones who are tempted. Who experience temptation. We are ones who experience what Jesus the Teacher experienced in the place the Spirit drove him.
In Part Three, we will see another way that Jesus offers us help in need through his own experience.
As we learn from Mark, the wilderness is a place of “wild beasts.”
Wild beasts are clearly terrifying, clearly threatening, clearly something we want to avoid.
And yet we learn in this passage that Jesus was “with” the wild beasts. Not that he tamed them, not that he drove them away. He was simply with them.
What are the wild beasts of our own hearts?
I know that in my own heart, my “wild beasts” are anger, anxiety, and the easy jump to despair. They are the thoughts and feelings that make me feel helpless and attacked. But I am not helpless. I am not even attacked.
I am, rather, invited to “be with” the wild beasts of my heart. Just as chaplains sit with suffering people in the worst moments of their lives and at the moments of their deaths, so each of us is called to be with our own suffering.
I imagine Jesus consoling me, letting me know that it’s possible: If he can do it, so can I. As he says later in the Gospels, “Go, and do likewise.” Here I am encouraged to go and do likewise, and doing likewise is nothing more than being-with.
How can we be with the wild beasts of our hearts? How can we simply meet them where they are, see them, attend to them, and learn from them?
Attending to the Spirit will drive us to the wilderness. It will draw us to meet the “wild beasts” and Shadow of our own hearts. And it is there that we will meet God. After all, that is the whole purpose of the journey to the wilderness, the journey into the dark, the journey to the deepest places of our hearts.
Jesus will emerge from his baptism and his time in the wilderness with a new understanding of ministry. He will bring a message of love, resistance, learning, healing, and justice. He will love and love and love again, even in the face of denial.
How has emerging from your own wilderness, from looking temptation in the face, from being with your wild beasts, helped you discern your own call to ministry, whatever that looks like?
However we are each called to minister to one another, our discernment will be rich and full if we allow ourselves to be driven into the wilderness. In the wilderness of our deepest places, we can allow ourselves to face temptation, wild beast, and ultimately to be tended by the messengers of God.
With God’s help, we will find our way, just as Jesus our Teacher did.
Rev. Catharine Clarenbach is a Unitarian Universalist minister living in Portland, OR. She received her M.Div. from Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC in 2014 and was received through ordination into the UU ministry in April 2015.
Rev. Catharine was raised in the Roman Catholic tradition, and still values much of the liturgical, seasonal, and musical richness of that tradition. Her father was a biblical scholar, and a professor of poetry, and so Rev. Catharine spent many hours–long before seminary! –discussing the deep meanings of Scripture.
Rev. Catharine is committed to interfaith work, and to an Earth-centered understanding of religion. She has been called “Jesus-plus-One” or a “Christian-adjacent Pagan.” (And probably many other names, as well!) In her interfaith work, she has had relationships with Neopagan, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, and African Diaspora religious communities.
Her current ministry, including classes, online retreats, one-to-one spiritual accompaniment, and vocation discernment, may be found at https://thewayoftheriver.com. The Way of the River Community also has a Facebook Group page to which everyone is invited.