I was struck when opening my Church Times on Friday by a headline referring to the ‘40 days and 40 nights’ of lockdown that we have so far experienced. These words make a link between Our Lord’s temptation in the wilderness and our present time of isolation. Both, in turn, echo a far older narrative, that of the forty years spent by the people of Israel in the wilderness between their deliverance from Egypt and their arrival in the Promised Land.
These are ‘in between’ times. For Jesus, the forty days and forty nights in the wilderness came immediately after the ecstatic revelation of his Baptism and just before the beginning of his public ministry. For the people of Israel, the forty years of wandering came immediately after a miraculous work of God in setting them free from slavery and just before their entry into the ‘land flowing with milk and honey’.
And for us?
Usually we reflect at length on these themes in the season of Lent, in itself an ‘in between’ time in which we turn our eyes from the Bethlehem stable towards the cross of Golgotha and what lies beyond it. But this year there is a sense in which our wilderness journey has been extended. Although we have celebrated Easter, and we continue to do so during the Easter season, there is still a Lenten feel to everything. It is, as St Ignatius might have said, a time of desolation.
Such times are part of what another great Christian writer called ‘The Normal Christian Life’. No Christian spends the entirety of their journey in ecstatic bliss. There is no connection, either, between how ‘good’ a Christian someone is and how much time they may have to spend in the wilderness.
It has been our calling to live through this particular wilderness time, CoVid time. As usual, we find ourselves spending a lot of our prayers on requests for this to stop. ‘Let us go back to Egypt’, the people of Israel said to Moses. ‘Take this cup away from me’, said Jesus to the Father in the garden of Gethsemane. ‘Make this wretched virus end’, we pray day in, day out, week in, week out.
Again, it is not an indication that our prayers are at fault if what we ask for is not exactly what we receive. We are not necessarily wrong to ask, nor are we perforce at fault in how we are asking. God is not bound to do what we want. We, however, are bound to keep on asking.
One of my roles is to teach Masters’ students at BGU, and one of the questions that we often debate is why a good God allows bad things to happen. It’s a philosopher’s question, and one that has generated a vast literature of speculation, argument and imaginative engagement.
It may be, though, that of all the possible questions ‘why’ is the least helpful – it is certainly the least answerable. Instead, it is often more helpful to ask how we are to live as faithful Christians during the wilderness times, or whatGod might be asking us to do in response, or where the opportunities to be creative in our loving service of God and one another, or who in our midst needs a kind word or a helping hand.
There is a paradox in our ‘Lenten’ Easter this year, a sense that the risen Christ has indeed returned to us having conquered sin and death, and yet a sense also that our fullest celebration of His victory must wait a little longer. What will sustain us best as we wait in isolation will be to keep ourselves relentlessly focused on Jesus, who endured the wilderness, and the garden, and the cross for our sake, and who triumphed over them all.
May God bless you all,