Preached at the Ordinariate Vigil Mass on 9th March 2019 at St Edmund’s College, Cambridge, by Fr Allen Brent
One picture, we are often reminded, can say more than a thousand words. And I remember one poster that I hung in my study when I was in Australia. It was a beautiful painting of the desert, stretching for miles into the distance, with sand baked into lifelessness by the relentless sun. But in the middle of the wilderness scene a single ear of corn had sprung up and grown, confronting the dead barrenness of the landscape with a sign of life. And the slogan under the picture was ‘Go into the desert, not to escape from life, but to find it.’
I like this picture because it reminds us of what the image of the desert was to the contemporaries of those who first wrote the gospels. We think of the desert as a lonely, deserted place, a place where we can escape from the distractions of everyday life, from the hustle and bustle of the city, from the pressures and tensions of the life of work and of the community. We think of the desert as setting the scene for what Newman called a ‘watering place sermon,’ reflecting a certain, nineteenth-century genre of homiletics, where the sermon would begin ‘Let us come together at this evening hour to find refreshment from the world, let us come apart to be with God….’
But to the contemporaries of Jesus the desert was not a place where you went in order to escape from the life of the city, in our case from its secular distractions, its socially generated images manipulating the human imagination in the service of an ethical philosophy of naïve hedonism. For Jesus’ contemporaries, the desert was not a place where one went to avoid being distracted by the forces of evil, but to confront them.
There were the forces of barrenness, of chaos, of lifelessness, of meaningless that God at creation had at the first confronted when he walked on the waters of chaos, nurturing an order of a good creation that arose from that chaos. There in the desert, without the influence of the life of the city, the city that concealed those forces of evil behind its saccharine and confusing images, in the desert could be confronted the forces of evil without disguise. Our Lord went into the desert, not to escape from the world, not to shun the distractions of the secular city, but to confront an evil that was naked and undisguised: as St Luke tells us, for forty days Christ was tempted by the devil. Here was the beginning of a battle with evil, a confrontation with the powers of darkness, of chaos, and of meaninglessness.
Indeed three of our Gospel writers see our Lord’s ministry in this context, beginning with his defeat of Satan and then proceeding to assail Satan’s kingdom of this age with the kingdom of God in the age to come. The devil initially repulsed, our Lord can now assail his kingdom by expelling the daemons from the lives of the sick and thus release them from the control of the devil’s emissaries. Our Lord’s final victory is the victory of his resurrection after suffering on the cross, by which he finally triumphs over the daemonic powers. It was in this perspective that we should see the origin of monastic communities. Those figures in the fourth century, like Simeon the Stylite, who went out into the desert alone and spent their years on the top of a pole saw the desert not as a place of escape but a place where evil could be confronted in its clearest form, as they wrestled with their inner life with its inner daemons.
Each of Jesus’ temptations speak to us in our generation, and in the culture of hedonism, instant gratification, and consumption in which we live. Each of them denies the real dilemma of our human situation, the real problem of our human condition. The aims of political society are providing economic growth painlessly, without cost to the environment, without sacrifice: if we could only turn stones into bread, without labour, without cost, without sacrificing expenditure on armaments, internal security, without eliminating waste in government bureaucracies or abolishing obscene executive bonuses in order to feed ourselves and even the world’s poor without cost: technology ought to be able to do this for us, without personal cost. Or if we could be secure that whatever hazards or dangers confront us, there would never be any personal cost: God could give his angels charge over us, lest we dash a foot against a stone. What a world that would be, the world envisaged by Leibniz in his great reduction ad absurdum. It would be a world in which as our car spun out of control at the high speed at which we were driving it and crashed through the motorway barrier, the forces of nature would cushion us, an alternative to the force of gravity would click in, and we were lifted from danger and suffered no harm. It would of course be a world in which, when in anger I sought to plunge a knife into the heart of my hated enemy, the steel would turn to rubber and do not harm: a world without the possibility of evil, but a world without the possibility of goodness too, without the possibility of repentance in which I throw the knife away and seek his and my forgiveness.
Or a world in which I as an individual have supreme power, no longer a world of argument and debate, of messy compromises in which one gets only part of what one wants, in interminable committee meetings. All power, the kingdoms of this world and their glory, means what I say is to be will be…
That world, as Leibniz saw, was a phantasy world, in his famous argument that this really is the best of all possible worlds. It is the fantasy world of our present, hedonistic secular culture, in which you can have love without commitment, in which you can have human relationships without sacrifice. It is a world without spiritual discipline that we seek in Lent to find and exercise, a world in which turning stones into bread involves us in a personal cost to ourselves, as we deny ourselves various pleasures for the sake of giving for others. It is a world in which there is no such thing as absolute control over our lives or indeed over the lives of others, and this too involves discipline and restraint, compromise and understanding someone else’s interest other than one’s own.
It is in a word a denial of the cross over human life, a cross which our Saviour took and invites us to follow him, in a life where there can be no final glory without suffering, no resurrection except through death to ourselves.