The Gospels tell us that right after Jesus hears that he is God’s Beloved, and that God is well pleased with him, he is sent by the Spirit into the desert. Over the years, I’ve studied these passages hearing the words of scripture scholars and theologians, reflected on them in prayer, studied commentaries, written about them as a tool for learning and tasting their truth, heard a psychological rendering or two, led reflections on the account, and read others’ poetry, piety, and prayers. I am not interested so much in exegetical exploration here. I do not bring sharpened scholarly tools. Just a muse, and wonderings. The desert is a very important place. And I am always struck by the Baptism-Desert one-two punch. Influenced by the work of Nouwen (Henri) and others on the Beloved One’s experience, I’m thinking about Jesus signing up with ‘Holy Spirit Tours’ in these short paragraphs.
“Catch the tour camel here… no, actually, you have to walk in the spirit of the experience. Moving right out from new start into who-knows-Abba-knows what, directly into wild-beasts-no-food-or-water-or shade. You were named Beloved, and I told you God’s pleased with you, so get going! You need this time. Why? You just do. Okay, keep walking that way into the sand. We’re walking…. we’re walking. You’ll meet danger. It will sharpen you. You had plenty of water – enough to wade in – back there. Here your memory and your need will tutor you.”
I imagine Jesus, still stunned by the baptism, the words of love, the heavens, and John. As a dear friend and guide has reminded me often, even Jesus had to have to time figure out what being the Beloved meant. He walks into the desert and just stops. He looks about, and there’s nothing but sameness. There’s nowhere to be but here – no interesting distractions or visitor center video clips on this trip. There’s no one to be but him, and no events to clog his calendar. It’s a radical shut-down. As if 20 programs were up on my computer and I just shut them all down and stared at the blank screen.
For how long does one spin thoughts and entertain oneself, when stark silence is met? No scrolls, no conversations, no story line. Just here. And in the ‘here’, Jesus encounters three temptations. They are about being fed, being rescued, and being in control. Through them he learns that he is absolutely cared for – but that does not mean he will not hunger and thirst as if to die from the need. He learns that he is absolutely safe – but that does not mean he will experience rescue from life’s pain and grief and hurt. And he learns that he is able to take clear steps and live from who he is boldly and with strength – but that does not mean he will be in control of others’ reactions, of the interaction of circumstances. He is hungry and thirsty, vulnerable and at risk, powerless and contingent. Being Beloved does not negate any of these. But he is absolutely safe – no matter. He can be confident in Abba’s presence with him, and the Spirit who guided him to this stark retreat. His path is one he will travel WITH, even as his foretold name (Emmanuel) means God-WITH-us.
Standing and stumbling and walking in the surety of the relationship he has and is with Abba & Spirit, Jesus can eventually leave the desert for mission. But integrating that foundation so it’s solid for action takes the famed 40 days – a LONG time. His needs and his abilities to influence his own life’s outcomes are released to the story he will walk with God. Each day will be a living the confidence, in darkness or light, tiredness or exultation. Whatever comes, the desert has taught him what Julian of Norwich will eventually write as another of God’s revelations… that all is well, and all will be well. There is no assurance of pleasant feeling throughout, or a shield from emotions or arrows or words that harm. The assurance that the desert destination has identified is deeper than the sand in his shoes or the sun that beats down. You may die, you may hunger, you may lose control, you may experience harm — you are safe. I do not leave you. Live as my Beloved Son, and show the rest you love and know and call that they too are loved the same.
The Johannine writer eventually will baptize us with our own Beloved phrase, but from Jesus’ lips: “As the Father has loved you, so I have loved you.” (15:9) It’s the next part that is the continuation of the Holy Spirit Tours. “Live in my love.” Jesus learned to believe in this in a new way in the desert, and to walk it in his living and mission after. And in his suffering and death as well. We must learn to live in this love deeply and truly too, and his deserts and ours teach us that we can, though it takes 40 days to learn the ‘get started’ part of the way. Wc can live from this living in love… regardless of our own vulnerabilities or fears, hungers or griefs, joys or celebrations, dancing and miracles, wonders and wishes.
I am not sure often that I have the courage. I love Willow Tree figurines and angels. I have that Nativity set, actually. I bought myself the “Courage” angel when I left home for a two year adventure. She had both arms reaching high. Soon after I arrived, I broke an arm off of her. I laughed and thought… very fitting! That’s about the level of my courage. Broken, but still reaching. Five years later I bought another as a symbol for myself. And just a few months ago, I dropped her and broke off both arms this time. I’ve kept her. She can no longer reach, but she stands with back arched, rooted. And perhaps that’s the courage – not in reaching, but in being. For sometimes life’s seasons are definitely NOT poetry, but wild storms. Still, living in love is the invitation.
Living in the kind of love that is Beloved-love is the only way any of it can make sense, I believe. And then we too will wish to share the secret of how to with others. And this is the secret of the Gospel – the Good News. Only this secret is to be shouted on rooftops, not put under bushel baskets, used liberally like salt, and be a water of life welling up within us. We are so well loved, and in return we love – God and all the others who are with us or who need the secret too – who need light, water, hope. For not only ‘as the Father has loved me, so I love you’ but ‘as the Father has sent me, so I send you’.
I cannot imagine that Jesus always humanly felt the joy of the truth of the Good News he shared. He knew human emotions, and their variety and how they are impacted by so many things. I do not imagine I must always be at ‘cheerleader level’ and tasting the love I profess and live in. But I must be rooted in it. Somehow. And pray for that. Towards the end of her writings, Therese of Lisieux writes when she feels there is a wall that blocks her from faith. Still she sings of heaven’s happiness and of God. She sees no hypocrisy here, for “I feel no joy in this, for I sing simply what I WANT TO BELIEVE”.
Living in love is an art that includes storing up all the baptism moments, remaining rooted deeply from the desert deepenings, and hanging on.
“Trust the Holy Spirit tours. God’s WITH and so we are. You come from love, you go to love, you live in love, and you serve with your living the building up of a reign of love in ways you can hardly see. You’re contingent and small, but wondrous and Beloved. And you are safe in God’s arms. Remember the Holy Spirit Tours has guided Jesus hither and yon on the journey on the soil and sand of this earth. You’re in good hands. So get going. We’re walking…. we’re walking.”