We began our services today, the first Sunday in Lent, as we do each year, with the Great Litany. It is at least somewhat familiar to many of us, if only because we have attended services here on this day in past years, but it is decidedly strange and jarring. For many of us, who might not be very familiar with the season of Lent, or with Episcopal/Anglican worship, to begin our service in this way may be disorienting. What are we doing? Why are we doing this? What does it mean?
And in the aftermath of yet another mass shooting, horrific violence visited upon schoolchildren and their families on Wednesday, another example of the deep evil that exists within human hearts and in our society—evil evidenced by our inability and unwillingness to stop the carnage—beholden as we are to the idolatry of our worship of guns and our slavery to political expediency, to begin our service in this way, praying for God’s mercy, for deliverance from every evil and danger that threaten us, to begin this way seems oddly appropriate.
The Great Litany is a relic of an old tradition. In Medieval Christianity, it was a custom during times of peril and danger to conduct processions throughout a parish, a city, or even a nation, to pray publicly for deliverance and for God’s intervention to spare the people from whatever danger was at hand. The Great Litany is actually the first official liturgy published in English, in 1544. Crafted by Archbishop Cranmer, it was originally meant to be used throughout England as it was about to engage in warfare with France. But it has been used on other occasions, and while we use it at Grace only on the First Sunday in Lent, as a stand-alone liturgy it may be used on other penitential occasions.
And it may be that such solemn language, to use words that have been used by English Christians for nearly 500 years, gives our prayers and laments a gravitas today that we sorely need. For we are in a grave crisis, as a nation and as a culture, as grave as any we have ever seen as a nation, and to many of us, it seems we lack the resources, political, spiritual, civic, to find a way out of that crisis, to heal the heart of our democracy, reknit the bonds that have frayed, to come together to create a safe future where all of us, adults and children, people of every race, ethnicity, national background or religion can flourish as individuals and as the great civic culture that our founders envisioned and past leaders have sought to bring about.
Lent is a time when, as individuals and as the body of Christ, we are invited to take additional time out of our daily lives to become more intentional about our Christian faith, to deepen our relationship with God, and to prepare ourselves both for what is coming in Holy Week and Easter, the arrest, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, but also to become intentional about the work we do in the power of the Holy Spirit to participate in and contribute to the coming of the Reign of God.
Each year, our gospel is the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. Actually, that’s a little bit of a misleading title, at least for the verses we just heard from Mark. And actually, we have heard all of this gospel text, except for two verses already in this year. We heard the story of Jesus’ baptism on January 7, the baptism of our Lord, and two weeks later, we read the last two verses of today’s reading. So we see it all, the transition from baptism, to wilderness, to preaching the reign of God and we’re encouraged to see the connections between these three elements. But even as we do that, we’re probably inclined to overlook the brevity and simplicity of Mark’s version of Jesus in the wilderness, and what he might be trying to teach us.
Here’s Mark’s version:
And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
Perhaps the most important thing in Mark’s terse description of these events is the connections between Jesus’ baptism and the wilderness. I have stressed several times already the violent language Mark used in describing the baptism—the heavens were torn apart, ripped apart, and the Holy Spirit came down. Now, we see similar violent language in his description of the Holy Spirit.
What can Mark have meant by telling us that “immediately the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness?” “drove” that’s powerful, almost violent language, and indeed it’s the very same word that Mark uses to describe Jesus’ actions and power when he drives unclean spirits out of possessed people. And we might go further and see a deeper connection—the Holy Spirit entered into Jesus at his baptism, possessed him, we might say.
There’s something else worth noting. Our translation says Satan “tempted” him, in fact, a better translation would be tested, not tempted. That is to say, rather than be enticed or lured away from his mission, Mark seems to be suggesting that he is being assessed, evaluated—will he be up to the task that is set before him?
All of this takes place in the wilderness, where Jesus was with the wild beasts and the angels ministered to him. That’s all Mark tells us; that’s all he thinks we need to know. We don’t know the content of the “testing” nor do we know Jesus’ mental or spiritual state as he was undergoing it. All we know is that when he returned from the wilderness and his testing, he began his public ministry, proclaiming the good news of the reign of God.
The wilderness is a rich image, one with a lengthy history in the biblical tradition, going back to the sojourn of the Hebrews in the wilderness. Whatever else the wilderness might have been, it was wild, as Mark’s mention of the “wild beasts” emphasizes. The wilderness is not civilized; it is not a safe place.
All of us have experienced such wild and dangerous places. All of us have sojourned in the wilderness, whether for forty days or forty years. Some of us may feel ourselves in such a place today. We may be struggling to experience God’s presence in our lives; we may sense that we are beset by wild beasts or other struggles. Our spiritual lives may seem as dry and barren as a desert. We may be lost and discern no way forward.
Certainly, today, this week, we may feel very much like we are in a wilderness, in uncharted territory, beset by dangers. And whether our wilderness is something only we are experiencing—struggles in our families or work, with illness, or doubt, or it is because of larger events in our community, nation or world, it can very much seem like we are lost and alone.
It’s important to remember that Jesus experienced his period of testing after his baptism, after receiving the powerful affirmation of who he was. He had heard the voice from heaven saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved.” That affirmation went with him into the wilderness, into his period of testing and it went with him when he emerged and began his public ministry.
It is an affirmation we too have heard, that we are God’s beloved children. Like Jesus, we have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit to empower us to do God’s work in the world. We might even see ourselves like Jesus, driven into the wilderness, driven by the Holy Spirit into the world, to do that work.
Lent is a time when we are inclined to focus on internal work—on prayer, reflection, other spiritual disciplines. In the face of the horrible tragedies that we witness, and all of the problems that are swirling around in our culture and news, it often seems both like prayer is all that we can do, and that prayer is much too little, ineffectual. Praying the Great Litany, as powerful as its language is, may seem like little more than play-acting in the face of the world’s problems.
Jesus came back from the wilderness having claimed his call, found his voice. He returned from the wilderness and began his public ministry, healing the sick, casting out demons, proclaiming God’s reign. Remembering our baptisms, empowered by the Holy Spirit, may this Lent be not only a time of testing and reflection, but a time when we find our voices and call, and proclaim with renewed hope and courage, the good news of the coming of God’s reign.