In his famous series of paintings entitled "Christ in the Wilderness" Stanley Spencer is very insightful about Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness
Traditionally we imagine Jesus as a solitary figure in a barren landscape where the landscape recedes into unimportance and with Jesus an heroic solitary figure doing battle with the spiritual powers of darkness. Stanley Spencer provides a different emphasis by having Jesus well and truly grounded and in communion with nature. Stanley Spencer' Jesus is a big earthy man
In one of the series Jesus is sitting on the ground on his haunches gazing at a scorpion in the palm of his hand. The scorpion is in the pose that scorpions take when they are ready to strike – tail arched and pincers raised. The bulk of the man sits interestingly with the quiet and deep reflective expression on his face.
I wonder what he is contemplating? That is clearly the question the artist is inviting us to explore.
I see him exploring his own potential to be poisonous, to do damage and harm to himself and to others. His potential to undermine his own best intentions and hopes. He's reflecting on who he is and is gaining important self-knowledge, including knowledge about his darker side. This is happening through the temptations – it is the purpose of temptations.
Through such testing our consciousness is brought more deeply into the foundations of our own personality in a way that we become more aware of our frailties and fragilities and how the spiritual world connects with our own spirit and importantly how our own particular propensity for evil is engaged. And this is all facilitated by the Holy Spirit by whose light self-knowledge is given and by whose accompanying guidance our lives are deepend and strengthened.
Spencer is right in depicting this as a very ordinary human activity. The process Jesus went through during those 40 days of solitary and intentional time with the Father is no different to our journey towards God.
Our journey towards God also needs seasons such as Lent and time away when we go on retreat.
By placing Jesus in the midst of creation and communing with nature Stanley Spencer gives us an insight that much of the traditional iconography of Jesus’ temptations has completely overlooked.
Jesus is hearing God's voice through his contemplation of nature. Is not this what we do when we go on retreat or set intentional time aside to be alone with God? For most people I would say being in the midst of nature is an important ingredient in hearing the voice of God at such times.
In the story of Jesus in the wilderness we can tend to forget that there is a third player in this drama. We have Jesus, we have Satan the tempter, and we have the Holy Spirit. With Jesus immersion in the waters of the River Jordan the creator has entered the depths of creation. In a way that is really beyond our comprehension Jesus baptism was the major event in the history of the mission of the Holy Spirit. Remember, it is the Spirit who at the very beginning of creation brings creation to birth. It is the Spirit who maintains creation and the cycle of recreation and renewal in the earth. Wherever there is life in this cosmos the Holy Spirit generates, sustains and is present to it. And so at Jesus baptism the Spirit, already at work in creation and in the histories and cultures hearts of humanity from the very beginning now descends to inhabit and fill the second person of the Trinity, the Word made flesh. Now the beachhead of the Spirit's mission into creation has been established. God reveals God’s love and God’s being to creation in Jesus Christ. So by placing Jesus in the midst of nature Stanley Spencer is helping to expand our understanding of the Holy Spirit, not only in Jesus life but in our lives as well. It connects us with creation and by connecting with creation we are connecting the very life of God through the Holy Spirit.
The story begins with Jesus full of the Holy Spirit after his baptism and being led by the same Spirit into the wilderness. Now, after the 40 days he emerges, this time in the power of the Holy Spirit. All this time Jesus, by the Holy Spirit, is communing with the mystery of the divine, certainly in the depths of his own subjectivity but also through creation. While it is a solitary time for Jesus, he is not alone in the wilderness, but is in deep solidarity with creation around him.
In our Lenten journey, let us follow the master in connecting with creation as an integral part of our spiritual practice.