Text: 2 Chronicles 36:14-17a, 19-23, Ephesians 2:4-10, John 3:14-21
Wilderness probably meant something very different to the people of Biblical times than it does to us. In those times, civilization was constantly besieged by outside forces; whatever was not part of the structure of society was of the wilderness, dangerous and to be feared. To the ancient Jews, even other tribes and nations were outsiders, and thus extensions of the wilderness. Anyone who was not in the civilized parts of the Promised Land, whether by choice or by force, was in exile, enduring hardship.
Today, especially in these wealthy and densely populated parts of the world, the wilderness has a romantic appeal. Few of us ever experience true wilderness, because it has been banished to distant places: the boreal forests, the great deserts, the tropical jungles, and the frigid Polar wastes are some of the few expanses which can still be called wild today, and they are hemmed in all around by human cities, farms, and increasingly, resource extraction zones that threaten their integrity, and even their existence. We talk about “unspoiled” wilderness with a sense of nostalgia, something that nobody from Jesus’ time would be able to imagine.
How can we really relate to this Biblical symbol of wilderness, since its context has changed so profoundly over the millennia? I see two answers to this: the first is to look at how our understanding of wilderness fits into its use in Scripture, and the second is to change our own understanding of the wilderness.
In the first reading, we heard how God sent conquerors to take the Chosen People into exile when they turned away, breaking the covenant and refusing to mend their ways even when the prophets called them to account. It’s presented as a fearsome ordeal, and so it doubtless was to those who lived through it, or who died then. And yet, in the second reading, Paul tells us that the God who did this, “who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.”1 How can this be the same God?
Our modern view of the wilderness may seem shallow and romanticized, but I think there is a deep truth hidden in it: the wilderness is not our enemy, but a gift from God. The anthropologist Joseph Campbell says that in the “essential quest[, Y]ou leave the world that you’re in and go into a depth or into a distance or up to a height. Then you come to what was missing in your consciousness in the world you formerly inhabited.”2 Intuitively, we today know that we need the wilderness, that only there can we escape ourselves and find God. Paradoxically, we thirst for the desert!
Our desert this Lent is not a physical one—we’re still here in the core of Ottawa—but rather, a spiritual one into which we have been invited. It’s no less fearsome a place, though: John of the Cross expresses the wilderness as night, dividing it into two kinds, purgation and contemplation, and saying of them, “The first night [of] purgation is bitter and terrible to sense. The second is not to be compared with it, for it is horrible and frightful to the spirit … for as the infused divine contemplation contains many excellencies to the highest degree, and as the soul that receives them, not yet purified, has many extreme miseries, and because two contraries cannot coexist in the same subject, the soul must suffer and be in pain.”3 We ourselves choose to undertake purgation in Lent, but the second kind of night is given to us by God’s grace, though it is a hard gift to accept. The light that Jesus tells us has come into the world4 is so great that it overwhelms our senses and blinds us to all else. John of the Cross explains that this is why we experience it as a painful darkness.
The only way out is through: to accept God’s light so much that as Paul writes, we are “… raised up with Christ and seated … with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus … .”5 It is only through grace that we can reach this end, but God gives us every assurance that we are cherished, and that she will not let us fall if we trust in her. How remarkable is this? Well, let’s go back and look at the wilderness that surrounds us again.
I said earlier that today, we seem to have tamed the wilderness that surrounds us, but that’s not really so when we look at the wider context. The deeps of the oceans still encircle our continents, and beyond our planet, the whole universe is wilderness. We’ve seen images from the surfaces of our Moon and of Mars, and have sent probes into the void between the planets of our own solar system; beyond lie expanses so vast as to dwarf our imaginations. The wilderness is all around us still, and as we have subdued it here, we have built new ways of seeing that show us what was once only wild speculation: that the stars are indeed suns like our Sun, and that worlds unknown orbit them too.
The wonder is that God, who is vaster than all this, loves each and every single one of us as much as the whole of the universe. It’s only by stepping away from all the other things we cling to and going out into the unsafe, untamed wilderness, trusting that God will sustain us as he did Jesus, that we can see God and receive the grace that unites us to Christ.
When the Jews were returned from their exile to the Promised Land, they were sent to rebuild the Temple. In the same way, when we return from the wilderness, we will be born anew, as Paul writes, “created in Christ Jesus for good works[.]”6 But for now, stay a while in this desert, and be still and courageous in spirit, receiving whatever God gives, and trusting that if we are tested—as individuals or as community—it is only to draw us more fully into God’s vast, profound love.
1: Ephesians 2:4-5
2: Joseph Campbell with Bill Moyers, The Power of Myth. New York: Doubleday, 1988. p. 129.
3: St. John of the Cross, The Dark Night of the Soul, Bk. 1, Ch. 8 and Bk. 2, Ch. 5. Reprinted in The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism, Bernard McGinn (ed.). New York: The Modern Library, 2006. pp. 385-387.
4: John 3:19
5: Ephesians 2:6
6: Ephesians 2:10