Today's readings might make us wonder what season of the church year we are really in. We hear the stuff of rainbows in Genesis, the great signs of baptism in Peter, the skies opening and the Spirit descending in Mark. The theme is ever the same: God's Word is shattering the remnants of an old creation and making it all anew. Light is coming out of darkness, color is flowing from a raindrop, a new life is rising from the waters of baptism, and a Savior stands up, anointed by the Spirit in the waters of the Jordan.
This is symbolism of Epiphany, the season we are leaving. We all have been there. Do you remember the joy and wonder of the last beautiful sunset you stopped to watch? Do you remember how reading a good book so transformed your point-of-view that the world would never, ever look the same? Perhaps it was a dinner with someone you loved, or a piece of music on the radio that haunted you with its beauty. For some, it was the experience of a fabulous retreat, or a summer holiday in an exotic place, or maybe a long walk in the woods, or even a swim at the beach. For others it was reaching the summit of a challenging peak, or even the joy of a gift they never expected to receive. The list is as endless as our experiences, but we all know these times. They shape our lives, remake them, pushing us around a corner where we bump into joy. These are all epiphanies, just as real, if not more so than the experiences of Noah and his family leaving the ark, of Jesus being baptized in the Jordan River.
In these times, God speaks - long in Genesis, making promises and covenants. In Mark's succinct Gospel narrative the undeniable divine voice immediately gives Jesus identity: "Sonship," a term that places him immediately in the center of God's heart. In the same way, God spoke to us all in Epiphany, the season we are just leaving, and in the myriad of our own experiences where we were met with something greater, more loving, and more compassionate than we can possibly imagine.
It is very human for us to want to stay there, to enjoy that sunset forever, to grasp a warm moment and cling to it for the peace it brings, the prosperity that touches our hearts, minds, and bodies so deeply that words fail us. We want to stay in Epiphany, smiling at the image of the Christ child, rejoicing with Simeon in the temple, marveling at the transfiguration of Jesus. Do you remember what Peter said? To put his reaction into modern words, "Let's build a place to live up here, so we can wake up each morning and admire the view. Let's capture the moment and have it for ourselves right here, forever if we can."
Uh oh, here comes the nasty part. Epiphany is over. Lent is here. Any good mind, Protestant or Catholic, is starting to think about penance. Suddenly, we are required to get penitential. Surely we've already discussed or at least thought about what we intend to give up for Lent: maybe chocolate or bowling; perhaps that second piece of cake?
But this sort of penance is actually not the heart of today's Gospel at all. It is the wilderness experience that is at the core of these stories. In four short verses, Mark gets straight to the nuts and bolts of the matter: Jesus' "Sonship" is revealed, and immediately he is driven into the wilderness. Both are part of one action by God. They don't make sense separately.
In the Genesis story, the wilderness is more implied than discussed. But it is most certainly present. Surely, the once-flooded earth was not a beautiful garden when Noah left the ark. We can only imagine that the ancient storytellers envisioned a wasteland, and a soggy one at that, waiting patiently to be tilled and cultivated, settled and repopulated.
The author of 1Peter knew what it meant to be baptized in the late first-century church. It meant joining a counter-cultural movement that was at risk of being persecuted. It meant entering a social wilderness where old friendships and ties no longer counted, and social status meant very little. Even family ties were at risk. As distant as this image may seem to us at the cusp of the third millennium, we are closer to the ancient church than we might think. Christianity is no longer the social norm in North American culture, and in some ways the Gospel is calling us to become increasingly counter-cultural in our own time.
Now we are oriented towards Lent, entering our own wilderness experiences. As individuals we are immediately challenged to plunge into our own inner darkness, to carry the experience of the Epiphany into our worst fears and greatest faults, to navigate and grow into the wilderness of our hearts. Our own epiphanies will be our guiding light, our inspiration to get us through, the candle by which we will illumine the dark corners of our souls and start to transform even our worst attributes into something beautiful.
As the corporate Body of Christ, we are called to embrace anew the fresh challenges that await us on our streets and highways, standing up to the injustices in an every-shrinking global society, carrying the Light of Christ into the very depths of despair in our culture, risking our security, and even our strength, in a hope that might re-ignite the fires of love and justice in human hearts around us.
These are lofty callings. Everyday penance is easier. Giving up a golf game is simpler. Saying, "No thank you," to a second helping of dessert takes very little effort by comparison. Attempting to transform ourselves and the world around us; preparing for a life with Christ, which was, in fact, the original intention of Lent; making the old new and the darkness light: this is what it means to enter the wilderness. This is what Lent is all about. We can't escape the wilderness. Even Jesus needed to enter it.
So the question of Lent is not what we should give up, but rather what are we going to embrace as a new way to walk, challenging and hopeful? What wilderness lies just over the next hill for us to bravely enter and grow into? It may be as close as the nearest nursing home, a poor neighbor's kitchen, a struggling student's homework, an empty heart waiting to hear a kind word. Or it may be as "far away" as Third World debt and hunger, global corporate greed, or other forms of institutionalized injustice.
We go in with no guarantees except for just one. It is this: when we start work in the wilderness, we may end up meeting Someone we hardly expected out in the middle of nowhere.
Watch out! We might just stumble across Christ.