finding a focus

I have walked in the desert – physically in Qatar, and spiritually. The chief loneliness of both deserts has been to see so large, unending a landscape, without meaningful markers, without boundaries: literally as large as life, for there appears no other.

To sit down (actually or metaphorically) and despair, is to be show something unexpected, and real. The endlessness is made up of grains of reality: tiny particles, each piled on another to create an entire landscape. There is no real ‘nothingness’ – and that understanding begins to change the perception of loss and emptiness.

It is a slow emergence of the sense of interest that sharpens all senses: here is the returning colour, here is the shape of something outlined by light, here is a tiny sign of life…

finding His face

The different faces of Jesus – how many faces shall we feel driven to discover during this Lent? Shall we hold tightly to the comfortable, familiar, laughing Jesus – the one who celebrated at Canaa’s wedding feast, who slept peacefully in the company of his friends sailing across the Galilean sea, who was called a glutton by those scandalised that he would choose to eat and drink with ‘sinners’…. or seek and explore another face of Jesus, companion of the lost and those society had cast aside.  He was no desert ascetic like his cousin John the Baptizer, his choice was not locusts and animal skins, but the good food and company of others.
Yet we may never doubt that he was tempted: those temptations to trade his ministry for the easy popularity of a public speaker; or to heed Peter’s demands that he should pass up the cup of his coming sacrifice: the ultimate temptation even to doubt God, as he hung in torment on the cross.
Tempted – but not sinning.
As we struggle – as we must – with doubts, and find more darkness than light, we can remember that Jesus kept faith – even in the lonely chaos of his temptation – holding the image of God, the understanding of presence, even in the long slow agony of death: crying out to the One who could never desert him.

a welcome foe

The desert hissed as the snake rose up.  He looked steadily at Jesus, then darted across the clearing.  Jesus hesitated only a second, then ran after him eagerly.

‘What’s he doing?’ Zadkiel cried, as he ruffled his wings.
‘He appears to be laughing.’ God said — only mildly surprised.

Indeed, Jesus was relieved now.  So many days straining against silence, letting the words run round his head.  At last there was a focus, and adversary, a way to test it all.

The snake led him to point where the desert met hillside, and coiled himself seductively around a pile of stones.

The desert hissed again.  “If you are the Son of God… (if… ifff ) Command these stones to become bread.”

Jesus’ eyes narrowed as he looked at the stone, baking in the heat of the sun.  ‘Clever worm,’ he thought.  This was indeed what he’d been thinking day after day as he weighed up the rocks, touched them to his lips.

He could do it, surely.  If he was the Son of God.  Stone into bread.  Water into wine.  He could do it.  But not like this.  Not to prove his own power.

He picked a rough stone from the desert floor and threw it into the midst of the snake-sweet pile.  Stones scattered, and the worm darted to safety.

Jesus answered him, ‘It is written: one does not live by bread alone.

The snake eyed him warily, then circled his feet.  The desert hissed as the snake slipped up the path and Jesus ran to follow him.

‘Not again!’ Zadkiel moaned.  ‘Let me go to him.’
‘Not yet.’  God said. ‘He is quite safe.’

The snake led Jesus to the very top of the cliff.  He coiled himself on the ledge, and Jesus leaned out over it.  Below, the light danced on the hot sand.  Jesus could see whole worlds shimmering: coast-lands and cities, rivers and trees. The snake rose and said, ‘To you, I will give all their glory and authority.  If you worship me, it is yours.’

Jesus laughed at the paucity of the offer.  He could see the scrub disturbing the flow of the illusion.  The snake had got this one wrong.  Jesus rebuked him. ‘It is written: Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’  He saw the snake flinch with the truth of it.

The snake was cross now, and gave no signal before he raced to the top of the hill where the stones rose as temple pillars. ‘If you are the Son of God.  IF.  IFF.  Throw yourself down from here.  For it is written: “He will give his angels charge over you, and they will bear you up.”‘

‘Oh, he is clever.’ Zadkiel whispered, in grudging admiration.
‘Oh yes.  Too clever for his own good.’ God said, unperturbed.

Jesus looked quite calm now.  He watched as a beetle scurried up from a crack in the rock.  He bowed to it, and blessed it, and said ‘It is said: Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’  And the desert began to hiss with the snake’s wrath.

‘Now!’ God said, so suddenly that Zadkiel nearly missed his cue. Soon the sky was filled with wings and songs of praise.  The angels came to Jesus and tended him in love.

the earlier part of this story
can be found here.

testing time

‘Not Yet!’ God said sharply, catching the angel’s robe.  Zadkiel was cross at the restraint.  ‘But look at him.  He heeds help.  Let me go to him now.’  ‘Not yet.’

God sheltered in the fissure of a rock, and the angels hid in the heat haze.  Zadkiel drew breath, slowly, then stepped back into place.

The wilderness was proving hard for all of them.  They watched as Jesus picked up a stone and tested the weight of it.  He lifted it up, touched it to his tongue, and then shuddered in revolt.  He flung the stone into the scrub, and reached for another.

The first few days had been easier.  Jesus walked from the Jordon into the desert giddy on the wind’s rush and full of the praise of God. It was five days before he stopped laughing at each new found flower, and nine days before a beetle went unblessed.  The birds held wonder longer.  On the twenty-ninth day, a kestrel soared, and Jesus’ breath caught in delight.

God held his breath then too — willing the bird to linger, seeking the Word’s rest.

Words.
They were the trouble really.
Necessary but inconvenient:  often forgotten or misunderstood.
‘You are my beloved Son.’ — meant, what, exactly?
Jesus fret at it for a week.

‘Well pleased’ — why?  Jesus wondered.  ‘I have done nothing but talk with the rabbis, learn to make tables, and sense my mother’s pain.’  It made no sense, ‘beloved… well pleased’.  But even that was easier to bear than the sense that God was growing in his very bones, moving every breath, emptying himself into Jesus’ speech and action.

‘That bloody bird!’ Jesus cried, and flung another stone across the desert.

The angels flinched at the sound of it, but God gently smiled.
‘That’s it.’ God said. ‘He knows now.’
‘Knows what?’ Zadkiel asked, still smarting from his reprimand.
‘Who he is… I am…  we are…  He is beginning to understand what he needs to do.’
‘So I can go to him?’ Zadkiel said eagerly.
‘Not yet.  We need to be sure.’

Jesus reached for another stone, then pulled his hand back sharply.  The snake rose up to greet him, sinuous and sleek.  Jesus eyed him warily and they both seemed to bow.

‘That’s it.’  said God as the desert began to hiss.
‘I can go to him?’ Zadkiel said, tentatively.
‘Not quite yet.’