A small group of us are getting ready to go to Iona in May and whenever I step off that wee boat on the tiny island that is Iona I remember one particularly amazing occasion. It wasn’t a rainbow that I saw that night but something very similar, a phenomenon of the light-The Aurora Borealis, or the Northern Lights. For almost half an hour the whole sky around us, and it’s a large sky in Iona, the whole sky was lit with rippling flashing lights, all the colours of the rainbow were represented and it was truly an awesome sight. Everyone came out of their houses, visitors and islanders, farmers and fisherfolk, children were wakened out of their beds and the pub emptied onto the pier. Some people were so overcome by the beauty of the sight that there were tears in their eyes and yet when it was over no one said anything. They said nothing because there were no words to describe what had just happened. It was a numinous experience.. in other words something infinitely holy! We had all been to school and we all knew (some better than others) that there were lots of sensible scientific reasons for what we had just witnessed and indeed for spectacles like a rainbow….but that simple explanation is not quite enough is it?
The German poet Geothe had a wonderful perspective to lend us for the rainbow. He called the splitting of what we see usually as white light into its many constituent colours the, “suffering of the light.” The moisture in the atmosphere acts like a lens and creates this wonderful effect. Water, essential to life and one of the greatest and most important symbols of the Christian life.
Water features large on this our first Sunday of the season. It’s our first Lenten signpost! We begin our Christian lives in an encounter with the waters of baptism which is why in many older churches the font, as ours is, is placed near to the door. The beginning of Jesus’ ministry begins in the river Jordan. He is baptised. The seal of God’s promise to save mankind is placed upon him and the Spirit descends on him like a dove and God recognises his Son. The gift above all gifts. The fulfilment of the promise that began with the sign of the rainbow.
The first letter of Peter reminds us of the significance of all this… “eight in all were saved by the water, which is a symbol pointing to baptism, which now saves you. It is not the washing away of bodily dirt, but the promise made to God from a good conscience. It saves you through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. ”
Just as these amazing natural phenomena give us all, a little glimpse of the true grandeur of creation and of our God, our own baptisms offer us a reflection of the grandeur and grace that awaits us on the fulfilment of God’s promise to each one of us.
“Now we see through a glass darkly, then we shall see face to face… ”
This year we’re concentrating on the account of these happenings as seen through the lens of Mark’s Gospel. Mark’s treatment of what happens after the baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan is short and sweet. All we are told here is;
“At once the Spirit made him go into the desert where he stayed for 40 days, being tempted by Satan. ”
Few details, gory or otherwise, plain and simple. Typical of this Gospel. The ‘no frills’ account of Jesus’ ministry! But there is one detail, the timeframe, and it’s of great significance. It’s no accident (there is nothing accidental about the accounts in our Bibles) that it mirrors the 40 years the children of Israel wandered in the desert, looking for the promised land. It was 40 days that Moses spent with God on Mount Sinai, and 40 days that Elijah took to march to Horeb… Those first readers of Mark’s Gospel could see and mark the parallels for themselves. All these things were signs laid out for them, clues as to the identity of Jesus.
Signs… the rainbow promise of the Old Testament, the waters of the flood and of baptism, the descent of the dove, the 40 days and the 40 years, Elijah and Moses. All of these things, signposts for them and for us to follow. Signposts to Easter….
So on this first Sunday in Lent what are you going to do? How are you going to get involved, or are you not going to get involved at all? We can get Lent horribly wrong and so many people have over the centuries. It has become a fast for all the wrong reasons.
What are the options for us as 21st century Christians?
Well, we can ignore it. We can make it a time to lose weight, or we can insist that it’s about nothing other than peace and justice, or the threat to the environment. Or we can set ourselves a target of impossible austerity, in which case we might just be setting ourselves up for failure or (possibly equally disastrously) success… for then we can purr, a complacent Pharisee, at the end of the 40 day period and give ourselves a good pat on the back!
Have you spotted what’s wrong with all of these? Well yes of course! They’re all about ‘me’ and not about God. It should be God that sets the agenda for our journey through Lent.. For that matter it should be God that sets the agenda for our lives, full stop! But let’s start small and try it for the 40 days of this season. Or even for just five days as I am doing. I want you to pray every day this week for me, a person who loves her food, that I might raise awareness and some money to help those whose diet is at best limited or at worst non-existent! I need your help and support. Pray that I will not give in to temptation! And that I might be led to appreciate more fully the plight of others and be more thankful for the good things we, in this part of the world, are privileged to have.
So, here we are again. The first Sunday in Lent. Our first signpost to Easter. The baptism of Jesus and the gift of the Holy Spirit. God’s promise to be with us is manifested in that gift of the Spirit. But this time is not just about the Spirit and these higher things, it’s about the flesh too, our humanity which God’s Son. shared. His life parallels ours, through birth and temptation, to suffering and pain and death and beyond. It’s a good time for reflection, for examining our priorities, for unravelling some of our self-centred pre-occupations and taking time to contemplate the numinous. Looking beyond the everydayness of our lives to the spectacular and allowing our spirits to soar!
WHAT is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare?—
No time to stand beneath the boughs,
And stare as long as sheep and cows:
No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass:
No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night:
No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance:
No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began?
A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.