On Ash Wednesday, after the school service in church, I had a treat. I went with Year 4 to the Hajj exhibition at the British Museum. I do recommend it to anyone who hasn’t been yet. It explains the pilgrimage to Mecca, which is one of the five pillars of Islam which every Muslim is expected to undertake once in their lifetime. One of the things I learned from the exhibition was that for Muslims, the urge to go on the Hajj at a particular time is understood to be an invitation directly from God, often received in a dream as a gift. The impetus, therefore, comes not from the person who is considering making the trip, but from God himself. That is a pretty personal encounter with the divine.
The first chapter of Mark’s gospel tells us about an invitation that Jesus had from God. But that is really too gentle a word for it. Jesus had just been baptized in the river Jordan by his cousin John, a peak moment for him in which he received a verbal sign of God’s love and approval. And then, just as he rose dripping from the water, the Spirit drove him out into the wilderness. Mark uses one of his favourite words – immediately – to indicate how closely associated these two events were.
Some years ago Martin Smith wrote a Lent book called A Season for the Spirit that has become a modern classic. He comments in it on this passage from Mark: “This word ‘drove’ is very precious. I know that inertia, illusion and fear hold me back from answering God’s invitation to enter into the truth and gain freedom. Yet even Jesus, free as he was from inertia like mine, needed the full force of the [Spirit of God] to make him enter the testing-ground of the wilderness. If I am going to go forward into that truth for which God knows I am ready at this point in my life, I am going to need the Spirit to drive me.”
Lent is a time for encountering the reality of God who drives us into places that are beyond our comfort zone, and who then makes it possible for us to survive and flourish and grow there. I may have told you the story I shared a few weeks ago with Year 4, when I was doing a lesson with them about pilgrimage, concerning the time I walked the Camino to Santiago de Compostela with my daughter Alison back in 2005. I had a sabbatical, she had just finished university, and we decided to take six weeks to follow the pilgrim route with our backpacks for 500 miles from the Pyrenees to the shrine of St James in northwestern Spain. I had a strange experience in the final week of that walk. We were about three days out of Santiago, and I had drained all my reserves. My feet hurt, my pack was heavy, my spirits were low, and I could barely stumble along, near tears, behind Alison, who was full of 22-year-old cheerfulness and stamina.
A sort of silent call for help rose up within me – not quite as formal as a prayer, but just a desperate feeling that I had nothing left to keep me going. And all of sudden something really peculiar happened, which I still can’t explain. I felt quite distinctly a push on my lower back, though there was no one behind me, and my legs began to pick up speed. I went faster and faster, overtaking my astonished daughter, and I distinctly remember the rather panicky thought that she would be really alarmed when she saw me take off and fly. It only lasted a few seconds. When I had to pull over to make room for another pilgrim, it was as though I had come out of a jet slipstream and I slowed back down to my normal pace. I wasn’t transformed and full of energy, but I had enough to go on with for the rest of that day and the rest of the Camino.
I hadn’t thought of this for a long time, but a few weeks ago I read another pilgrim’s published account of her walk to Santiago, and to my astonishment the same thing had happened to her. I began to think there was a place along the Camino where a special push was regularly doled out to those in need.
So having remembered this odd event quite recently, I thought of it when I read Martin Smith’s words about “the precious word ‘drove’”. Sometimes it is the sense of something outside oneself, pushing us to do what we thought we weren’t up to, that reminds us we are not the source of our own strength.
Jesus himself, though he was entirely and continually open to the will of the Father, needed the push of the Spirit to enter the testing-ground. That is a very encouraging story for us. Jesus wasn’t a superhero with unheard-of capacities for endurance. Nor was he God in a human spacesuit, just pretending to be tempted like us. Jesus was a human being, like us in all things except his perfect, uninterrupted intimacy with God. When something he had to face was hard, he felt it as any of us would. He needed the Spirit to direct, empower and encourage him, just as we do. If it were not so, the story of his life would not have much relevance for us.
We need the driving of the Spirit, the otherness of God, to lead us into the freedom that God wants us to enter. We cannot transform our lives through our own power. Many people have learned this through the Twelve Steps programme of Alcoholics Anonymous and its sister organizations. We must admit our powerlessness and let God do the work in us that we cannot do for ourselves.
Over the past few days I have been reading Religion for Atheists by Alain de Botton, the book that we are going to discuss tonight in the first meeting of the new St Mary’s Book Club. I don’t want to steal any of Scott’s thunder, and I hope a number of you will come to the discussion later. But I can tell you without spoiling any surprises that the author, though he greatly appreciates many things about religious faith, hasn’t learned the First of the Twelve Steps. He takes it for granted that there is no God, and so all the challenges and consolations of religion must arise from human effort.
This is technically a tragic view of life. As de Botton says, commenting on the sight of religious Jews weeping and praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, “Remove God from this equation and what do we have left? Bellowing humans calling out in vain to an empty sky. This is tragic and yet, if we are to rescue a shred of comfort form the bleakness, at least the dejected are to be found weeping together.” Shared and ritualized misery is the brightest hope that de Botton can honestly summon up.
The Christian faith, on the other hand, is essentially a comedy, as Dante reminds us in his great poem. The story of the universe is going somewhere, it has a benevolent author, and however hard things are along the way, the ending will be happy. All this is possible to affirm because a loving God is in charge. God is real and has shown us what he is like in Jesus Christ, the perfect image of God. It is the Spirit that makes us free, not our own puny human efforts.
When we bellow our pain it is not to an empty sky but to a God who knows what we suffer firsthand, because he has been here himself. He has been tempted as we are. He has been worn out and drained of energy. He too needed the Spirit to drive him, to push him, to send him the comfort of angels.
This means that Lent is not a time for exerting our willpower over our human frailty, but a time of surrendering to the Spirit. We may find that God has some testing in store for us. We may be asked to go a little further than we thought possible, to face a fear, to repair a relationship, to give up a destructive habit. If we try to tough it out in our own strength we will fall flat on our faces. We are characters in a comedy after all. One helpful Lenten discipline might be to go to the theatre to see Noises Off or One Man, Two Guvnors to remind ourselves of the ridiculousness of our attempts to keep our dignity.
Our help comes from elsewhere, and in Lent we are strongly reminded of this. Some of us were at the Taize prayer round the cross on Friday night in Southwark Cathedral. At one point in the evening prayer on every Friday, the Taize brothers kneel down and lay their foreheads on the image of the crucified Christ and invite others to join them. Handing over the worries and fears that beset us is a great lightening of the heart and a step into the freedom of the Spirit.
Alain de Botton would approve of the psychological power of the ritual, but for Christians it means much more than that. We are surrendering control to God, who is outside us and above us, but also within us, around us, and beneath us to uphold us. He is even behind us to give us a push when we need one.