When I was small, my grandfather would take me on Sunday walks and reminisce about his childhood. Once, he took me to outside a local shop. “It used to be the dentist,” he said, and with a chuckle in his voice, he told how he and his pals would gather outside to peek over the half-frosted window at some unfortunate person writhing in agony on the dentist’s chair. It was the Netflix of their day.
I also recall a long walk in the countryside where he pointed to the old droving roads where cattle were once driven down to market. The roads were long overgrown, but it was possible still to trace their faint outline.
It was difficult to appreciate his world. And it is a bit similar with Mark’s gospel; where we are only given traces of the life of Christ to reflect on…
The world of my children can also seem distant to me. Their use of modern technology means they interact with people and the world in a very different way from my childhood. They embrace change without the same worry I have about its negative impact.
And change is a feature of the religious landscape of Scotland. In the space of a generation, there has been immense decline in church membership. For many, the church has become like the old droving roads – with only traces left of its former glory. It is not easy for us as a church to accept this change and to discern where God is in all of this – it is not only a source of challenge but of fear – perhaps like the desert that Jesus entered.
A few years ago, when there was a scare about how tech companies were gathering personal information from computers, I investigated the advanced settings of my internet browser. After a few clicks, I was confronted by a warning that said ‘Here Be Dragons’: only continue if you are sure.
When the old map makers, the technologists of their day, depicted the unexplored oceans, they would often draw pictures of sea monsters – and later the phrase ‘Here Be Dragons’ was associated with it - a warning that you travel there at your own peril. The ancient Roman cartographers did something similar with unexplored lands, painting wild animals to signify that ahead was dangerous territory – “here be lions” they wrote in Latin as a warning.
Here be dragons – this could well describe the season of Lent – a time when we are encouraged to enter the unfamiliar territory of the desert to meditate on the sufferings of Christ and examine the arid regions of our own souls.
Each year, on this first Sunday of Lent, we read a gospel account of Jesus going into the desert. Into the wilderness he goes for 40 days, bringing to mind the forty days Moses spent on Mount Sinai without food, and the forty days that the prophet Elijah walked through the wilderness to reach the holy mountain Horeb. And so our season of Lent mimics this period of forty days… Jesus, of course, is entering a territory that is full of threat. Dangerous to his life, but also dangerous to who God wants him to be – a place where his will, desire, and commitment are tested by the shady figure of Satan. He will be tempted with riches, with honour and security, and with power – temptations we all endure.
The gospel accounts agree that the desert experience happens shortly after the baptism of Jesus by John. There is a continuity. Jesus embraces the ascetic discipline, concern for the poor, and call to repentance that were a feature of John.
And this desert experience is the prologue to his public ministry. What Jesus confronts in the wilderness is a preparation for his coming struggle with corrupt religious authorities, with disciples that deny him, and violent state power. A struggle he will describe later as a kind of second baptism, leading to his murder on the cross.
The gospel passage says that “the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness”. God, it seems, does not wait for temptation to arise but sends Jesus to confront it. And traditionally, Lent is the period in which we too are prompted to confrontation, to confront our failings, admit our weaknesses, and seek to put right our relationship with God and with others. And it is in this honest examination that we encounter our own dragons – the temptations that threaten to sink our faith, turn us in on ourselves, and away from what God wants us to become.
It is different for each of us. On your service sheet is the picture of a Pieta, a sculpture of Mary holding the body of Jesus from the cross. It is by Franz Koenig, who also created the large sphere sculpture that somehow survived the collapse of the Twin Towers in New York. The pieta is situated in the crypt of a modern Catholic church in Berlin, Maria Regina Martyrum. The church and its outward courts reflect the design of a concentration camp. It is near to a building where thousands of political prisoners were executed by the Nazis. A small community of Carmelite nuns live next door, their ministry is to pray and to remember. To confront the dragons of the past and to let the victims have a voice in our future.
Below the Pieta are the ashes of a man called Erich Klausener. He was a leading civil servant, horrified at the rise of the Nazis. He was also leader of a Catholic lay organisation in Berlin. Hitler described him as a troublesome catholic. Klausener spoke out publicly, with courage. He felt he had to be true to his faith and to himself. In July 1937, he was assassinated in his office. On his work table was a piece of paper with a few words scribbled down: “Be true to your actions. Never break your word. Show no false prestige.” The words of his struggle to be faithful – his desert experience. In 1963, his ashes were laid to rest at the foot of the pieta statue, recognised as the first Catholic martyr of the Nazis in Berlin.
His story is a Lenten one. Of struggle, of temptation and testing, of overcoming fear and confronting evil. “Be true to your actions…Show no false prestige”.
Few, if any of us here, will face the test that Klausener endured, but the struggle with temptation and falsehood, with being true to our actions and showing no falsity, exists in us all. It exists for us as a community of faith, and exists for us in the political times in which we live. And this is the journey we are asked to take and which Lent symbolises.
Here be dragons indeed…thankfully, we are not alone, we have each other, we have Christ and the love of God to be our guide.