For sins of heart, of word, of deed,
When we in humble fear record
The wrong that we have done the Lord.
So here we are. It’s Lent again. As that ancient English hymn proclaims it is the healing time. A time in which we get to make some choices about our spiritual lives. Again the question is put to us. Will we follow the Lord on the path to Calvary? Will we place our feet in his footsteps as he walks the Way of the Cross? Will we not watch with him one sweet hour in Gethsemane? But first, will we follow him into the desert for forty days?
In a Gospel as short as the one set for today it is hard to miss the detail. Indeed it seems that St Matthew was being rather brutally terse. His account of those forty days, when the Lord Jesus wandered in the desert, is brief and to the point. The Judaean desert was not a pleasant place. Certainly here St Mark has a bit more detail with a rather elusive reference to the wild beasts seems to evoke just one of the physical trials that the Lord must have undergone in those days. True, it was not the pain of the final days of his earthly life, but surely it was a foretaste, a preparation of the horrors that were to come.
Yet in the arid deprivation of the desert there was, at the end, comfort. And here is one of those curious details that are retained. He was with the wild beasts and angels looked after him. We do not find Jesus staggering out of the wilderness and into the arms of some benevolent band of brigands, he does not head for the nearest town where he might find rest, food and drink. Rather, at the end of his trials, he remains there, for some time, in mystical communion with the Divine as his very own creations, the angels, appear to heal his scratches, to feed him, and quench his thirst.
This is the most mysterious appearance of the angels in Jesus’ earthly life. It is also the one which seems to make the most earthly sense. At his birth the heavens were filled with choirs of angels singing. Proclaiming that hymn that we have now put to rest until Maundy Thursday. After his resurrection the two angelic men at the tomb bare witness- He is not here, he is risen. Both these angelic episodes are to do with exaltation and glory. The angels stand static, well at least with a minimum of wing fluttering. They speak but do not do. At the end of the forty days however they do, without words, without song, but with actions.
As we wander through this Lent, through these days of spiritual desert, our minds turn more and more towards Our Lord who will hang on the cross for our redemption. As his precious, broken, flesh, reigned from the tree, we can only guess what passed through his mind. Forgiveness certainly, anguish perhaps. Confusion, unlikely. But what about temptation? That great trial at the beginning of ministry concluded with the soothing salve of angels wings upon his weather beaten face. There alone on the cross was the temptation to call angels again to minister to him. The idea had occurred to him in the garden the night of his betrayal but he rejected it saying;
"Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then should the scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?" [Matthew 28]
On that sacred cross he could have called ten thousand angels. But he didn’t. He chose the hard path. He chose to ride out the course of our salvation.
We have a choice to make this Lent. Do we follow the way of that old Adam, our ancestor, who took the easy way, who gave into temptation, and let sin into the world. Or perhaps do we take the more difficult way- the way of the desert, a way where the angels sent to keep us out of Eden become our guides, our guardians as we follow the final Adam, our Lord Jesus. Will we follow our Lord to his restored Paradise where it is garden, not desert. To that place where man and wild beast dwell together in harmony, without fear of what the future might hold. To a place where we become like angels.
Cleanse, us, O Lord, from every stain,
Help us the gifts of praise to gain,
Till with the Angels linked in love
Joyful we tread thy courts above.
(Ecce tempus idoneum)