Friday, March 07, 2014

Lent 1: A Tale of Two Gardens

I remember having to write an essay in junior high school on a witty aphorism by – I don’t really remember, maybe James Thurber or G. K. Chesterton – who wrote: The only thing natural for human beings is to be artificial. I’m not sure a classroom full of 14 year old boys really got the point, but it’s true, isn’t it? What makes us human is our need to change and use and transform stuff in order to surround ourselves with an environment we have made for ourselves. For example, somebody flies over a perfectly good and beautiful mountain range and realises the magnetic compasses are going crazy, which means there’s iron ore down there. So we blow it up and we tear it up and make train lines and deep water ports and we extract the ore and ship it out and sell it, and the steel gets turned into towns and factories and machinery that we use for tearing stuff out of the ground and selling it.

This is not wrong – being blessed with vulnerable, relatively powerless bodies but with a restless, powerful intelligence and juxtaposable thumbs means that human beings are naturally toolmakers and artificers. We look for a way of weaving safety and advantage for ourselves out of what we’ve got. Both the story from Genesis this morning, and the Gospel reading, recognise that and play with the idea that all that restless human energy also needs limits. Today in fact, we have a tale of two gardens.

If you were here on Wednesday evening you will already know the connection between the tale of the first garden – Eden – and the liturgy with which we enter the season of Lent. Lent itself is not in the Bible – it’s a season of the Church year and the word itself, ‘Lent’, comes from the Anglo-Saxon for spring. So Lent is a sort of spring-time of the soul – at least in the original, northern hemisphere understanding of these things. In the southern hemisphere we have a more profound way of connecting Lent with the seasons as a deepening of the days, the lengthening of shadows and the release of the land from the deadly torpor of summer. It is a time of regathering, restoring, mulching and pruning of the soul.

So we start with a tale of two gardens. You might not have much trouble imagining Eden as a garden – the Bible tells us that’s what it is - but notice that it is a garden not yet touched by human hands or secateurs, a pristine wilderness planted by God with everything in it needed to sustain life. If your idea of a garden is neatly laid out and well-turned beds, weeded, pruned, reticulated and fertilised – well, that’s the artifice that we humans do so naturally. Eden isn’t that sort of garden. But the wilderness Jesus finds himself in after his baptism, when he is led by the Spirit, as Matthew tells us, or driven out, as Mark puts it, to be tested in the desert. That you might not think of as a garden but it, too, contains all that is needful.

Both Eden and the desert of temptation are wilderness states, which is to say there are wild places that human hands have not made, and so they reconnect us with our original dependence on God’s provision. In our contemporary state of heightened ecological awareness of the vulnerability of creation both Eden and the desert are also original states that represent the planet we live on – untouched and vulnerable to our wrong choices, our runaway greed.

It’s a commonplace for Biblical commentators to point out that Jesus’ 40 days in the desert are a sort of re-run of Israel’s 40 years in the wilderness. At every turn, the Israelites make wrong choices, turn away from God, and only the intercession of Moses pulls them through. Jesus undergoes the same testing in the wilderness, and he makes the right choices. But the testing in the desert is also a re-run of the testing of the original humans in Eden. For all its danger and sparseness, the desert is a place of beauty, a place that sustains both soul and body, and a place in which fantasies and dreams are confronted. Not for nothing were the desert Fathers in Egypt in the fourth century the foundation of Christian disciplines of spirituality. Not for nothing do men and women even today retreat to the desert for contemplation and renewal.

As I noted on Wednesday evening, the essence of the sin of Eden was for the man and woman to place themselves at the centre of their own moral universe – and in doing so they are appalled to discover that there is nothing much there. They are running on empty – as the story of Genesis figuratively expresses it they discover themselves to be defenceless, unarmed, see-through-able, naked. When we set ourselves up as the centre of our own experience, we soon discover that we are standing on nothing. And the consequence of that is an existential vacuum – the universe collapses into nothingness and meaninglessness – the consequence is the death of meaning. This, of course, is a quintessentially modern malaise.

Jesus undergoes a series of tests that make the same point. Incidentally, the structure of the story of Jesus’ testing follows another ancient literary genre – the ordeal that the hero must undergo in order to be purified and worthy of the quest. And the ordeal always begins with a ritualised weakening of the candidate, for example by fasting. One commentator makes the point that hunger is not just a physical condition but the measure of what it means to be a human being (Swanson: Provoking the Gospel of Matthew). In Eden, God breathes life into Adam and makes him a creature of desire, driven by the needs that hunger provokes. So the test for Jesus is to be completely and utterly human, to face the reality of emptiness, of hunger and thirst, and to learn in that condition of need to remain dependent only on God his Creator. Which of course was also the test in Eden. It is telling that the temptations attack Jesus in the everyday places of need, the places in which we human beings work so hard to weave security for ourselves – the places of weakness and hunger and the desire for mastery and control. What the story is telling us is that these are the sacred spaces of our own spiritual struggle and growth – not the imagined sins or weaknesses of others, not the feel-good spirituality of the church pew but the places in our lives where the struggle gets personal and the outcomes are stark.

And so to the temptations. ‘Turn these stones into bread’. It’s the human dream, isn’t it? We look at the stones in the desert and we see iron ore, or oil shale. We look at the low yield and the disease susceptibility of grains grown by poor farmers and we see the promise of genetically modified super-cereals. We look at burgeoning cities strangling the natural catchment areas of rivers and we invent sophisticated water purification plants and drill deeper into subterranean aquifers. We are in love with our own technology and we forget that the goodness of the Earth is a fragile gift. Our technological dreaming causes us to forget our dependence on the Creator of all that is, and our interrelationship with all the living systems of the Earth. And so our dreams of transforming the Earth wreak damage on the environment just as we also are alienated from our own Self. Jesus’ words are a reminder that physical need in all its forms is an ever-present part of the created condition. Being blessed means not putting reliance on self, or reliance on science, or reliance on government, in the place of radical reliance on God.

‘Throw yourself down from the Temple’. The devil suggests that Jesus is special, so special in fact that God will prevent even a stubbed toe. It’s the temptation of spiritual pride, which, again, is a subtle way of putting our own selves at the centre, not God. The devil is telling Jesus that he can, effectively, blackmail God. Throw yourself over the edge and dare God to catch you. This is the dark side of putting ourselves at the centre of our own world. Because if I’m at the centre, then the world can’t exist without me. In philosophy it’s a simple fallacy called solipsism. If I can’t see it, then it’s not there. My dog expresses it even more beautifully by hiding – just her head, because she’s too big to get her whole body under the bed – when I call her for a bath. But, says Jesus, reality belongs to God. Beloved as you are, your life is lived in the matrix of gravity and cells and DNA, your physicality is a part of who you are and you are subject to the limitations of all that breathes until your life is hidden in God’s own life.

‘All this, then, I will give you if you worship me’. Remember Faust, who makes his deal with the devil and gets long life and success and riches in return for – well, the one thing that really wasn’t his to bargain with. We do, however, make Faustian bargains with God – or try to – when we make our worship conditional on God doing this or that. Jesus reminds us that who we are – and who God is – are absolutes. The centre of our life – and the greatest commandment – is to love the Lord our God with all our strength and being – and from that flows the web of relationships with other people, and with the whole of creation, that constitute our own life.

The radical dependence on God that Jesus is teaching doesn’t come easily to the DIY species. We’d rather depend on our ingenuity, or our credit card, or even the certainty that one day soon I must win Lotto. Lent – the deepening of the days – calls us back from all that to the remembrance that God is God and I am me. The desert in one form or another – a physical desert or a self-imposed desert of stripping back in some way the artifice of our lives – is the essential place to start. And the desert of Lent is experienced – if you enter it with joy – as a garden. When Jesus had answered the devil for the third time, the devil retreated, St Mark tells us, and he was with the wild beasts, and the angels waited on him.

Welcome to Lent.