A few miles from Rhyl, where I grew up, is the picturesque, and by now quite sizeable, village of Dyserth. The name is the clue that its existence is rooted in Celtic Christianity. Like Dysart, in Fife, it’s an invocation of the desert in which so much of Christian contemplative practice emerged, and of course this goes back to Jesus himself, and his forty days and forty nights in the wilderness. Even in well-irrigated (!) Celtic landscapes, the desert isn’t far away.
Our Presbytery Prayers this week fall on Ash Wednesday. It’s a day we Presbyterians are aware of sometimes just as the day after the pancakes, sometimes when we see faint marks on the foreheads of friends and neighbours and say “Of course! They’re Catholic/Episcopalian…” (and probably reflect on the austere beauty of practices in other traditions) or if we choose – and as Presbyterians, we have the option – the beginning of our own disciplined pilgrimage towards Easter.
When we think of Jesus in the desert, a particular resonance exists this year; I’d imagine that most people have experienced the pandemic as a wilderness of sorts, and I know many people who have actually called it that. But again, we remember that Jesus’ time in the desert was sandwiched between his baptism and the start of his ministry. It had a beginning and an end.
The water, the dove, the voice; Jesus’ baptism was the threshold at the entrance to the forty days. The temptations – according to Matthew and Luke, anyway; Mark is ambivalent – mark the exit from the experience.
The water, the dove, the voice – there’s an old tendency to represent these things at his baptism as the moment Jesus understood the scope of his mission, and fully grasped who he was and what he was to do. That makes me very uneasy; the Gospels don’t invite us to imagine Jesus’ states of mind, and when we need to know them – the anger in the Temple, the grief at Lazarus’ grave, the agony in the garden – they show us, and tell us, unambiguously. There’s no hint in the Gospels that his baptism was a moment of insight for Jesus. But affirmation, yes, that’s certainly there and the audible proclamation of the Father’s good pleasure, the proclamation that Jesus has, and is, everything he needs and needs to be, to do this.
And if we have reflected on that during our extended stay in the pandemic wilderness, haven’t we also discovered this – that we, in our perplexity and apprehension at what lies ahead, are sufficient for the work God has given us, in ways we hadn’t imagined?
Whether we observe Lent as a discipline or not, forty days of reflecting on who we are, what we have and how we shall approach the work and ministry before us now, is surely no bad thing for us in our lives and congregations, and maybe no bad thing for us as a Presbytery either.
Yours in our shared work
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” Mark 1: 9-15
1) Jesus Christ, our Starting-Point
your ministry before you,
your baptism – the voice, the dove, all that, behind you now –
you went into the wilderness.
We cannot imagine how he felt, Lord –
that distant Jesus, then, looking out beyond the wilderness
and over what he could see of his ministry –
but we know how we feel, looking out over this wilderness,
and over our ministry, individual and shared.
We cannot presume to guess
what you thought, what you felt, what you imagined.
but we can trust the humanity of these things, Incarnate Son –
because of your solidarity with us
“We cannot presume to guess,” we say –
and yet, we do.
We seek reassurance, in our perplexity.
We know how we feel –
and all the things we feel –
and we need to know that you understand,
and that we are understood.
Assure us that, in your humanity,
is known from within, brought to God, loved, and understood.
2) Where we are starting from…
We come to you as your Presbytery in prayer.
We come to you with, and from, your congregations in Argyll.
We come to you examining our lives as individuals
and our shared life as your Church.
We are filled with apprehension,
as we prepare to emerge from our wilderness
into a challenging, challenged world.
Were you, too, Lord?
We are filled with anticipation
of the work that lies ahead.
Were you, too, Lord?
In ways of being and staying together,
of worshipping and witnessing and sharing the Gospel amid challenge and strangeness,
we have discovered that we have what we need.
Is that what you encountered in your baptism
when the dove came and the voice spoke,
and the Father pronounced himself well-pleased in his Son?
What we are, where we are, how we are, in the midst of all of this –
reassure us that you understand.
Our reassurance is that you have been here,
that you understand,
and that you will bring us through.
3) For access to the true wilderness
Desert, Dysart, Dyserth;
our forebears turned aside from life and its patterns,
to seek the healing, repairing peace of the wilderness,
as Jesus sought you, and found you there.
They simply called these spaces “desert”
and came to seek you in them.
The desert is not far away.
God is close.
Yet we have lived these months in another desert.
Around us is the disruption, hard and hurtful
Of life’s patterns, of relationships and expectations,
in this wilderness that we did not choose.
But we can turn aside from this, too,
to seek you, and be found by you
in the desert-place of prayer.
Spirit of God, who led Jesus into the wilderness,
lead us now.
Give us forty serious days,
to turn the lessons of COVID’s wilderness
into renewed understanding of your presence with us,
new preparedness for the ministry ahead of us,
a deepened understanding that where we are
Jesus has been.
Turn our pandemic wilderness into the wilderness of Lent.
Make this time a strangeness our space of contemplation.
4) Prayers for others
We withdraw from the flux and flow and noise of life, to pray;
but we, like Jesus, are immersed in the world, for the world.
We pray for the world.
Our experience is so limited, our imagination so constrained;
we easily reduce the whole world’s experience to our own.
Forgive us where the immediacy of our experience has denied us perspective,
and we have forgotten that this is a global pandemic.
We pray for the dedicated work which has produced vaccines,
and which will be required to meet the virus’ new mutations.
We pray for the ongoing work of vaccination,
giving thanks for the skill and stamina of those who organize and execute it.
We pray for our society, frozen in lockdown,
anxious about what thawing circumstances may reveal,
the stresses and fractures that may emerge,
the damage to economic, artistic, productive life.
We thank you for glimmers of hope, intimations of resilience,
manifestations of kindness and care,.
We pray for our communities, our congregations,
And all those lives directly in contact with ours.
We pray for those whose needs we especially know,
and those around us, whose needs we have not seen –
especially where we might have, and should have.
And as Jesus taught us, so we pray: Our Father…