I have unashamedly ‘cheated’ with this week’s blog. What is offered below is an adaptation of one of the meditations I offered that the diocesan Advent service on Monday 30 November. The meditation (and others I gave then) drew its starting point from the prayer just below. The lovely ‘wilderness’ prayer at the end of the reflection was written by Francis Brienen. It is a helpful tool for meditation in Advent.
Clare Amos Director of Lay Discipleship
An ancient Romano-Byzantine road in north Syria
God of passion and power,
Challenging, compelling us with your story’s breathless beginning.
Walk us into the wilderness
To hear your voice where silence reigns.
Give us insight, the vision beyond all seeing,
So we may look upon heavens torn open
And know that the time of good news for all creation
Is always now. Amen
‘Such a fast God, always before us and leaving as we arrive’. The Jesus we meet in this first chapter of the Gospel of Mark, personifies, or could we say ‘incarnates’?, that ‘such a fast God’ whom the Welsh poet RS Thomas celebrates.
The very form of the opening of the Gospel itself helps to shape that vision for us. Mark throws us straight into his story. There is no time for nativity stories, no space for genealogies, and certainly nothing like the Gospel of John’s majestic prose poem which sets Christ within the roomy confines of eternity and infinity. Though perhaps Mark is closer to John than we might initially realise. But what we are greeted with are words in a hurry, with not even the time for a verb in the Gospel’s opening line, and if you look carefully at the Greek original not even a definite article, a ‘the’, accompanying that word ‘beginning’ with which the Gospel starts. One effect of this is that this beginning feels not a finite point in time but rather the start of a process which is still ongoing. That is probably exactly what Mark thought. ‘Beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God…’ The good news, the gospel was continuing, growing ever richer as it encountered new times and places, and even when it was being reshaped by Mark and those who came after him, into the form of a written text, that form we now often associate with the word ‘Gospel’. The fact that these are words in a hurry does not make them transitory or less important, but rather opens up that sense of urgency which is such a characteristic feature of the first few chapters of the Gospel of Mark.
Incidentally as I am sure many of you are aware, Mark’s Gospel also does not have a conclusive ending, as its final words of chapter 16 are themselves an unfinished sentence, ‘They said nothing to anyone, they were afraid for…’. Yet somehow this hasty beginning and uncompleted end encourages us too, as readers and listeners, to place ourselves within Mark’s ongoing story of good news.
‘On the way’. If you want to find the key to open a Gospel, the best place to start is probably at its beginning. That is true for all the Gospels, and most certainly for Mark. The biblical quotation from Isaiah there in verses 2 and 3 offers us the first full sentence of the Gospel. What insights does it unlock for us?
But … is this indeed a quotation from Isaiah, in spite of what it suggests? The answer is ‘yes’ and ‘no’. For the second half of the quotation – about the voice crying in the wilderness is indeed from Isaiah chapter 40, but the first half – which refers to the messenger who is sent – comes from the Book of Malachi. Why then did Mark attribute it simply to Isaiah? Indeed some later scribes seem to have made a change to ‘in the prophets’ to be more strictly correct.
I wonder though whether this apparent inaccuracy is deliberate and it is a sign that Mark is wanting to encourage us to take a careful look at the passage. And if we do we will find that the one Greek word that is repeated in both halves of the quotation, the part from Malachi and the part from Isaiah is odos, which means ‘way’ or road or journey. Is this repeated word then the key that will open the Gospel of Mark, reappearing as it does at critical moments as the Gospel unfolds, especially in its core middle section (8.22-10.52)
e.g. Jesus…and on the way he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ (8.27); They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem (10.32); Bartimaeus…followed him on the way (10.52). ‘Way’ is a fundamental image for this Gospel. It was of course an early title for the followers of Jesus (Acts 9.1). I suspect that, initially, it was linked to the ‘way Jesus taught’. And I think that it may have been due to the genius of the writer of Mark’s Gospel that ‘the way Jesus taught’ shifted into exploring ‘the way Jesus walked’. The word ‘way’ then eventually came to describe not only the physical paths that Jesus trod, first in Galilee and then in Jerusalem, but also in a profound metaphor of his ‘path’ of self-giving, first in ministry and then eventually in his passion..
In his Gospel Mark is taking his first readers, and us, on a journey, a way, with Jesus himself as the centre of the pilgrim party. John the Baptist will be his forerunner on this way in both life and death, and those whom Jesus will shortly call to be disciples will quite literally be told to ‘follow’ him on this road. The picture above is of a Romano-Byzantine road in North Syria. This ancient road in this arid wilderness corner of the Middle East has long symbolised for me the ‘road, the way’ that is so central a thread running through the Gospel of Mark. The image has spoken to me even more powerfully in the last decade as the suffering and persecution of Christians in this region has resonated so closely with the experience of Jesus himself and his followers on the way.
This ‘way’, both for John and for Jesus, begins in the wilderness (1.4,12). The wilderness is above all a place of ‘stripping’. Stripping us down from excess, from pretensions, stripping us naked of the subterfuges we so often use to hide from God and from ourselves. Neville Ward in his classic book The Use of Praying wrote the telling words ‘Mankind cannot bear very much reality’. The wilderness is a place where we may be asked to bear more reality than we feel comfortable with.
Sometimes the wilderness we encounter is an actual physical place. I can well remember leading groups of students on long treks through the Judaean wilderness near Jerusalem. It was an awesome experience, not simply because of the beauty of our surrounds. A large measure of its significance came from the awareness that (quite literally) a few water bottles, a map, (and hopefully my sense of direction!) might well stand between life and death for us all. Life itself was thus given a new importance and clarity.
More often perhaps we have metaphorical ‘wildernesses’ that we are all called to spend time in at different points of our lives. They are periods of time when circumstances leave us bare so that we have to wrestle with ourselves – and perhaps also with God. Our only companion may seem to be our shadow – whose acquaintance we would often prefer not to make. There is a tremendous painting of Christ himself in the wilderness, in which the figure of Satan is actually painted in as Christ’s shadow.
There is a sense in which our experience as nations, as communities, as churches and as individuals since March this year has felt to many of us like ‘a wilderness’. We have in many ways been metaphorically ‘stripped’ and deprived of distractions and thus forced to bear far more reality than is normally the case. Churches too, because of the restrictions they are required to follow, have also needed to ask themselves questions about what is essential – and what is not.
But, of course, the air in the wilderness is normally (except in the days of a khamsin wind) beautifully clear – enabling us to see life in a purer light. Near the beginning of CS Lewis’ Silver Chair, Aslan meets Jill on a mountain-top and says to her, ‘Here on the mountain, the air is clear and your mind is clear; as you drop down into Narnia, the air will thicken. Take great care that it does not confuse your mind.’ A wilderness is like that mountain-top! That is why at times in Christian history men and women have chosen to live as monks or nuns in the wilderness, to ‘see’ in a clearer light.
And it is in the wilderness that this journey of Jesus will shortly begin, that traditional biblical place of preparation, the wilderness that the season of Advent itself encourages us to explore. Come, let us walk into the wilderness. Come, Emmanuel.
Wilderness is the place of Moses,
a place no longer captive and not yet free,
of letting go and learning new living.
Wilderness is the place of Elijah,
a place of silence and loneliness,
of awaiting the voice of God and finding clarity.
Wilderness is the place of John,
a place of repenting,
of taking first steps on the path of peace.
Wilderness is the place of Jesus,
a place of preparation,
of getting ready for the reckless life of faith.
We thank you, God, for the wilderness.
Wilderness is our place.
As we wait for the land of promise,
teach us the ways of new living,
lead us to where we hear your word most clearly,
renew us and clear out the wastelands of our lives,
prepare us for life in the awareness of Christ’s coming
where the desert will sing
and the wilderness will blossom as the rose.
(© Francis Brienen, ‘A Restless Hope’, URC Prayer Handbook 1995, used with permission)