Wilderness Way: Meditations on the Ascended Life
The Very Rev. Dr. Donald P. Richmond
―If any man will come after me let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.
(John 16:24, KJV throughout)
Following Jesus from Gethsemane to Golgotha to grave is not an easy discipline. With St. Thomas we may say ―Let us also go, that we may die with him‖ (John 11:16), but, also like Thomas and most of the others, our purpose does not always match our practice. We fail. We need something, Some- one, more. We need the presence and the power of the Paraclete. Following Jesus requires the wings and the winds of the Holy Spirit. Discipleship requires dynamis!
Week 1: (Matthew 4:1-11, and Matthew 26)
“Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil”
The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1-12), Christ‘s assertions about the ascended way, for- mally begin shortly after our Lord‘s baptism when Jesus is physically and spiritually identified as the eternally chosen Son of God for the eternal plan of God. And God is well pleased! And yet, in the passage noted above, here is God‘s only Son being led (Matthew) and driven (Mark) into the wilderness. Odd though it may sound, this was God‘s plan for the releasing of God‘s power. It was Christ‘s way. It is our way. We will also be led into the wilderness. We too will experience desolation. Let us know, therefore, as we seek to faithfully follow, that the Spirit is with us, and in us, and for us.
Sometimes geography is biography. Jesus was led up into the wilderness. No doubt this had everything to do with the so-called lay of the land, the geography in which this event occurred. Spiritually speaking, however, being led up was a biographical statement. No matter what may have been the outward circumstance – the desert waste – God‘s intention was to always guide and guard Je- sus along the upward path. God‘s plan for us, also, is to be led up into the higher plan and power of God. No matter what our circum- stance may be, it is always the up-ward way to which we are called.
There will always be times – the “then” of our existence – when we will be tempted. In his devotional classic The Imitation of Christ, Thomas à Kempis tells us that some people are tempted earlier in their lives, others are tempted later, and a few people will experience serious temptation throughout their lives. Each person is unique, and God will orchestrate our lives according to our need and God‘s glory – keeping in mind, of course, that God tempts no one but, rather, we are often led astray by the world, flesh and devil. We must be prepared for this. It is nothing unusual, as James tells us in his epistle. There will always be a “then.” There will also be graced times when growth is most assured under the blistering sun of wilderness temptation.
Wilderness experiences are watershed experiences. It was for Jesus, and it is intended to be so for each of us. After our Lord‘s wilderness success, Jesus formally began his ministry. Soon thereafter, Jesus began preaching, teaching and healing. And then, ac- cording to Matthew, he chose the Twelve to be with him. When we read and reflect upon our Lord‘s wilderness experience, we can take hope. Even God in the flesh had to endure the wilderness. It was the path of Israel. It was the path of Job. It was the path of Jesus. It was the path of many great saints. It is, to the point, our own specially crafted path. Our wilderness can be profitable.
Week 2: (Matthew 5:1-12 and Matthew 27)
The Beatitudes are a dramatic forespeaking, a practical and present poetic prophecy about the drama of Christ‘s Passion. They reveal his way and our way as those who follow him. While the Beatitudes communicate the wisdom way, they pointedly express the way of walking in that wisdom. They are not loosely linked proverbs, recast in New Testament context, but progressively present, a pathway leading “up” into the presence and power, and purpose of God. That is, they outline a step-by-step process by which blessedness is both promised and secured. This was Jesus‘ way, the blessed way to which we are called and challenged.
The Beatitudes remind us of Psalms 1 and 23; Jesus Christ is “the man” who perfectly walked the way of perfection (Psalm 1), protection, provision, and pain (Psalm 23). Our blessing is in following the same person along that same path. But we must be prepared. The way of ascending is the way of descending. The upward way always leads to Gethsemane and Golgotha. And it is precisely in these places – not apart from these places – that a table is set.
The upward call always grounds us. The ascended life is entirely practical, parochial, and dependent upon the Paraclete.
There is a pronounced “now” associated with blessedness. Just as there is a “now” attached to the “day of salvation,” there is a “now” associated with walking the way of Jesus. When we simply seek to walk with Christ along this path, regardless of our circumstances or the challenges, the blessing of God is assured us.
“Blessed are” is the litany that the Beatitudes proclaim. How very odd, then, that we should think that this blessedness might be received or achieved apart from the way of the thorn. The thorn of poverty, mourning, humility and hunger is the blessed way of head, heart and hand compunction.
Followers of Jesus must always walk this way of beatitude. We have done so before, and we will tread this trail many times again. Citing a broadly Benedictine idea, we always begin again. As the Beatitudes are essential to the Christian life, we must continually live within them. To be truly transfigured will require that we perpetually return to the valley of real life. The ascended life always leads to Calvary.
But this is not the entire picture. The Beatitudes contain poignant promises punctuated by the pre-sent assurance of the “kingdom of heaven.” The Kingdom of Heaven, as a present reality, shapes and softens everything. It frames all of life for the follower of Jesus Christ. The upward path of God, this beatitudinal way that ends with persecution, has bounty and beauty. It ends with kingdom authority and kingdom power. The Lord Jesus Christ – our resurrected and ascended Lord – reigns from a Tree (Psalm 96:10).
Week 3: (Matthew 5:3-5 and John 18)
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”
Poverty of spirit is the Christian‘s perpetual state. It is not a way- station, a passing phase from which, having learned its lessons, we move onward and upward to bigger and better things. We cannot seek or find God without his illuminating assistance. We cannot save ourselves. God must initiate and act because we are too impoverished to do otherwise. A bigger and better life is to be found within the context of our pronounced and permanent poverty of spirit.
God, becoming man in Jesus Christ, knew spiritual poverty because of his self-emptying. He knew the poverty of anonymity, temptation, sorrow, misunderstanding, betrayal and denial. God in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit shares our deepest impoverishments.
Poverty of spirit reaps rewards. But let‘s be honest: this is not something to which we are humanly attracted. We do not aspire to be spiritually impoverished. We would much rather be self-sufficient even though, if we are followers of Christ, we know on some level that self-sufficiency is both insufficient and unsatisfactory. The poverty of spirit to which Jesus makes mention is an impoverishment which only God in Christ by the Holy Spirit can satisfy. To grow in this is to know God‘s blessing in both the here-and-now and in the there-and-then.
“Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
True impoverishment of spirit naturally results in mourning. And, importantly, this kind of sorrow and mourning are without regret. In mourning, we become far more human and far more real. Embracing who we really are actualizes the true sorrow by which comfort becomes available. Jesus wept, and from this he worked resurrection miracles.
As we examine life, the current state of the world and its inhabitants, we should mourn. When we see injustice and violence, we should mourn. When we even begin to understand how far we have fallen from God‘s intention, and our own human flourishing, we should mourn. And while praying for his imminent return is at all times proper, mourning our own current condition is also appropriate.
Comfort comes in walking the way of the Cross, and not away from it. We all experience hardship, heartache, disappointment and discouragement. But, along with this, followers of Jesus must take up their cross. This means that, in some small way and in spite of our Lord‘s finished work, every Christian shares in the burden and the blessing of redemption. As Scripture tells us, we fill up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ (Col. 1:24). Consequently, the comfort of God is a present reality and a future promise.
“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”
It is profitable to think about how humility and the inheritance of the earth intersect. The word “humility” derives from humus, which means “earth.” A reasonable interpretation, therefore, is that humility is most often to be found in owning the dust of the humanity from which we were created. God is mindful that we are dust, and wisdom suggests that we must do the same. The incarnation, life, suffering, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ is the identification and glorification of our humanity. Humility, dust, is essential to humanity.
Meekness is not weakness. Meekness means that with Jesus, in the power of the Holy Spirit, we can ascend by descending into those painful places where the fruits of the Spirit are most capably planted and fertilized. The Rule of Saint Benedict elucidates upon twelve steps of humility as a means of moving upward with God by systematically applying practical disciplines. Meekness is a discipline which leads to the development of a loving disposition. But it is not easy to achieve such a disposition. Growth is absolutely needed, but we need an abundance of grace to arrive at this soul-disposition. We need the Holy Spirit empowering us to live holy lives.
Week 4: (Matthew 5:6-8 and John 19)
“Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled.”
The process is simple, but the product is not so easily arrived at: poverty of spirit leads to mourning, true mourning leads to humility and meekness which, together, produce a hunger and thirst for righteousness. A hunger and thirst for righteousness is an indication that the Holy Spirit is alive within us. If we have no desire for holiness, we have cause to question the state of our souls. The Holy Spirit elicits holy hungers! For what and for whom are we hungering and thirsting?
An appetite for holiness means that we not only recognize our own shortcomings, our sins, but also recognize and mourn over the lost state of those around us. We thirst for truth, justice and righteousness, where Christ not only rules in our hearts but also reigns over all the world in grace and mercy and peace.
Sainthood is not reserved for the exceptional Christian; it is an expression of the normal Christian life. Every Christian in some way recognizes this calling and this challenge. But we sometimes pursue perfection in our own way, according to our own will. Eve sought to be like God, but her own impulses and passions led her to the forbidden fruit (Gen. 3:4-6). Like Eve, whether we are Christians or non-Christians, we want to be like God. How this is achieved or received, however, makes all the difference.
“God‘s calling is God‘s enabling,” as one of my old Professors was wont to say. There is the promise of filling attached to the hunger and thirst we all experience. Do we have this hunger for holiness? Are we striving to be what God called us to be: saints? What he has begun, he will also fulfill. It is God‘s work, by and in and through the Holy Spirit.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”
The careful reader will notice that I have skipped verse 7. Fear not, this is deliberate. To appreciate the implications of verse 7, we must first consider verses 6 and 8. There is a progress here, one broadly paralleling our Lord‘s ascension up Mount Calvary. Holy Spirit people naturally hunger and thirst for righteousness. But how do we move from the hunger for holiness (v6) to the fulfillment of that hunger (v8)? How do we see God?
Purity requires sifting. No matter how much we have progressed in our faith, our attitudes and actions are not always as pure as we would like them to be. There is within us, in some ways, a mixture of sinner and saint. But God is not content to leave us in this state. Change is required. We see this in the story of Job. Chapters 1 and 2 emphasize that Job was a righteous man, but in spite of this, further purification was required. Finally, nearing the end of his ordeal, Job sees God and changes both his perspective and his position (Job 42:5). Even Jesus, who was entirely perfect, had to affirm that it was God‘s will, not his own, that he most wanted to be done (Luke 22:42). Golgotha was a sifting. We all experience our own Golgotha.
The seeing of God entirely reorients our disposition. When we truly see God, we begin to see everything and everyone differently. Far from being puritanical, true purity is, like Christ, humble and gentle in head, heart and hands.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.”
It seems odd that, while speaking about righteousness and purity, our Lord should place mercy squarely in the middle. We hunger, it seems to us, and we eventually receive and achieve purity. But such an idea is far too abstract. We need a practical means by which to move from ―point A‖ to ―point B.‖ Mercy is the chief means by which the Christian moves from an appetite for righteousness to the satisfaction of that appetite in purity of heart. Mercy softens any hard edge that can be associated with righteousness or purity. What does righteousness look like?
What does purity look like? Mercy!
Mercy is a most inconvenient discipline of discipleship. It is very difficult to extend real charity or real mercy. Letting love be truly “genuine,” as says the Apostle (Rom. 12:9), is hard work. It is inconvenient in regard to family and friends, and especially inconvenient when it comes to our enemies. Jesus had experience with each of these – family, friends and enemies – during his final days on this earth. His family openly and mockingly challenged his messianic claims. His friends argued over who was the greatest. His closest friends denied or deserted him. Mercy is most inconvenient, but it is most necessary if we take discipleship seriously. The Calvary way is the merciful way.
Week 5: (Matthew 5:9-12 and Luke 22)
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.”
Making peace is a costly Christian responsibility. I am reminded of many who, while seeking peace and reconciliation, lost their lives. Peacemaking, most especially as an extension of mercy, is painful. But, as well, peacemaking was and is the way of Jesus and his disciples. Children of God must at all times seek peace and pursue it, having our feet shod with the preparation of the good news of peace (Eph. 6:15). Such peace is a gift of God, through Christ, by the Holy Spirit. It is a graced gift. We need much grace as we walk the way of the cross.
“Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Having ascended from poverty to peacemaking, we might be in- inclined to think that our radical reorientation would be celebrated. It isn‘t! On the contrary, the reward for following the blessed way is persecution. We, therefore, follow the path because Jesus himself has walked it, and he has called us to do the same. We follow it because, regardless of the persecution, it is the better and blessed way.
This is emphasized by the bracketing of the entire text around the idea of “theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (emphasis mine). There is a numinous now-ness attached to this ascended path. There will also be persecution. When we arrive at the summit of our ascended struggles, we will be welcomed by the cross of Calvary.
“Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do…” (Luke 23:34)
And here we are, at the highest point of earth and cosmos – the Cross of Christ – where the ascended life is the descended life. And here, once again, we return to the foundations of abject poverty, merciful purity and promised persecution.
These words of forgiveness are exceptionally hard to fathom. Those who historically crucified our Lord did not know what they were doing? Really?! The idea is almost impossible to believe. But it is believable because we, also, crucified Christ. How many times has each of us done something without realizing the full implications of our actions – for good or for ill? The fact is that we know and we do not know the implications of our actions. But, regardless of this, we absolutely know our need for mercy, for forgiveness.
Week 6: (Luke 23)
“Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43)
We are all thieves of divinity. With our original forebears we have reached out and taken from the “tree” that which was not, in this way, rightfully ours. In the text cited above, this arrogance is reversed because redemption is freely and fully offered. An analysis of the first sin, the original sin, suggests that being “like God” is not only God‘s intention but also our (often subconscious) motivation. God wants us to be like him, but, unlike Adam and Eve, on his terms and according to his plan, not our own.
Being with Jesus is what conforms us into his image and likeness. When Peter and John were confronted by the Council for proclaiming Jesus, it was noted that they had been with Jesus. They were changed because they were with him. The repentant thief on Calvary was with Jesus only briefly, but God‘s mercy welcomed him into Eternity. God freely gives, and wants to give, his presence, power and promises to those who humbly ask.
“Woman, behold thy son…” (John 19:26)
Although many truths might be derived from this exchange, and regardless of Mary‘s exclusive and exalted position in salvation his- tory, our Lord was quite pedestrian in his concerns during his final hours. His entrusting of Mary to John, and John to Mary – this reconstitution of biological family – tells us about our Lord‘s priority of family, a family consisting of those gathered around the Cross of Christ. Love motivated both Mary and John. Love sustained them during these very dark hours. Love determined their relationship to Jesus and to each other. The Cross defines us, determines us and defends us. It is the great equalizer.
“Jesus knowing that all things were now accomplished,… saith, I thirst” (John 19:28)
Karl Barth, one of the most im- important theologians over the past five hundred years, once wrote that in order to continue our theological tasks we must always begin again. This perspective expresses both great humility and great insight. Jesus accomplished for God what was intended to be accomplished through his complete self-emptying. The blood and the breath were almost gone, and he thirsted. Redemption won. But, in spite of this perfect redemption, the Christian must continue by beginning again. We perpetually return to poverty, mourning and meekness.
He who was perfectly righteous, who perfectly fulfilled the Law and the Prophets, who was incarnate Love, thirsted. Refusing both the cup of the Kingdom and the numbing gall offered by his tormentors, our Lord hung suspended between heaven and earth. It was a physiological thirst of cosmic import. Yes, Christ was physically thirsty; some temporal relief was certainly needed. But so that all might be fulfilled, our Lord denied himself temporal comforts in order to attain eternal rewards. Hungering and thirsting are part of life. They are part of Lent, emphasizing the deeper and eternal appetites which followers of Jesus are called to cultivate as we, like our Lord, often feel suspended between two worlds.
“he said, It is finished” (John 19:30)
Our Lord “received the vinegar… and gave up the ghost.” There are many times when we believe that we have been treated unfairly. We feel that things have been taken from us, and we have been socio-psycho-pneumatically impoverished. Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, willingly drank of the world‘s bitter vinegar and allowed himself to be so very diminished that he could surrender his own spirit. He gave all for God, and for us, for the joy that was set before him. There is freedom when followers of Jesus subsume life‘s vinegar into the victory of God.
“he said, Father into thy hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46)
Having followed our Lord‘s beatitudinal journey from poverty through persecution, we have arrived at the Garden Tree of Calvary. Here there is true fruit that is freely offered. To be a follower of Jesus, to walk his Way, is to embrace a harrowing journey of sanctified suffering. It is to “step up” to our calling by perpetually “stepping down” into the person whom God has made us to be. And this is as it should be. Saint Charbel, the 19th century Maronite Monk, tells us that in order for us to be saints, we must first be human. Beatitudinal living is the process of humanization.
Let us close with a meditation on the cross by Thomas à Kempis in The Imitation of Christ:
In the cross is salvation; in the cross is life; in the cross is protection
from thine enemies; in the cross is infusion of heavenly sweetness; in the cross is strength of mind; in the cross is joy of spirit; in the cross is height of virtue; in the cross is perfection of sanctity. There is no health of soul nor hope of eternal life but in the cross. Take up, therefore, thy cross and follow Jesus…