During my university days, in addition to occasional bouts of studying, I was both a football coach for one of the University teams and a conductor of the University wind band. What these activities have in common was that both required periods of training in anticipation of a performance. In the case of my football team, they would prepare for match-day by building up their fitness and honing their skills in the mud and the cold to simulate the conditions in which the game would be played. For the wind band, time was spent in rehearsal learning to play the right notes in the right order, and then perfecting a well-phrased and balanced sound. I had a mantra which I used to utter to both groups: practice makes permanent. If you want to produce a high level of performance, the best way to achieve that goal is to practice a skill until it becomes so deeply ingrained in your muscle memory that it becomes instinctive. In other words training — for football, for music, or any skill — is about formation. It’s learning to produce an action so reliably, that when you are under pressure to perform, that action itself becomes second nature.
For the Israelites, there was a period of 40 years after the escape from Egypt in which they became wanderers in the wilderness before they could reach the land of Israel. But this was more than a place of purgatory, indeed it marked for them a time of preparation and training. They learn to rely on God’s provision for food in the manna they received from heaven each morning. They learned to rely on each other as a community living together in freedom. They learned how to listen to God’s will for them by following the commandments that God gave them. And so the wilderness became a place of formation, where the Israelites formed as a community of God-shaped people, ready to enter into the place —both spiritually and geographically— that God had desired for them.
It is of course from the wilderness that John the Baptist emerges right at the start of Mark’s Gospel, preaching repentance, and calling people once again to turn to God. And in this Gospel, it is where we meet Jesus for the first time, who receives his own baptism by the river Jordan. Just as the Israelites would spend 40 years in the desert, so Jesus spends 40 days fasting in the wilderness before his final journey to Jerusalem. During this time, he manages to reject the temptations of food and power, instead committing his life to God’s purpose even when that purpose ends in the cross. His experience of self-denial, and his capacity to put God first, are what prepare him for those fateful moments in the garden of Gethsemane, when he prayed that if it were possible he should not have to die, and yet still had the strength to say “your will be done”.
Lent can sometimes feel like a long wilderness period before the real action of Holy Week begins. It’s a time during which we practice self-denial in our everyday living, and are reminded that before the joy of the resurrection “we are but dust, and to dust we shall return”. It is a time when we rehearse saying “no” to ourselves and our immediate desires and needs, and say “yes” to putting God’s desires for our lives into practice.
However, sometimes life doesn’t fit into neat liturgical seasons, and our times in the wilderness — illness, the death of a loved one, financial or spiritual difficulty — can make us feel alone and abandoned. But when we look back on a period like that, or if we are experiencing one like it at the moment, we should take heart from the story of the Israelites in the wilderness and the temptations of Jesus. These are times of challenge and pain, but they are also times when we discover that we are not alone. God is with us in the wilderness, holding us, weeping with us, strengthening us, forming us. Like the musician or the footballer, like the Israelites, like Jesus, we are preparing for that moment of performance, when we are able to respond instinctively in the right way. We call that moment heaven.