Monday 28 February 2022

The Witness of Wildness

And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.

—Mark 1:12 (NRSV)

I have always liked the ICS logo, especially the way the negative space surrounding the letter ‘C’ depicts the image of a descending dove. Long understood as a Christian symbol of peace, the dove’s presence in our logo emphasizes the fact that ICS is an educational community committed to following the way of shalom, the life-abundant way of justice and peace that our Maker and Redeemer has given us to travel in faith.

The three synoptic gospels, in their recording of the events surrounding Jesus’ baptism, all report that immediately after the baptism the heavens open, and the Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus in the form of a dove (John’s gospel also testifies to this event, without directly referring to Jesus’ baptism). Here’s where things get even more interesting. After a voice from heaven proclaims that Jesus is God’s beloved Son, with whom he is well pleased, the first act of the descended Holy Spirit is to send Jesus to the wilderness.

As I was reading the gospel of Mark’s account of these events, I began to wonder if the image of the descending dove is as irenic as I first took it to be. Whereas the gospels of Matthew and Luke report that the heavens were “opened,” Mark’s gospel says they were “torn apart.” And whereas the gospels of Matthew and Luke tell us that the Holy Spirit then “led” Jesus into the wilderness, Mark’s gospel says the Spirit immediately “drove him out” into it. (I checked: the Greek word translated as “drives out,” ekballei, is the same word used when Jesus “casts out” demons.) Thanks to Mark’s gospel, now I have the image of a heaven ripped violently open, from which descends a dove unlike any other, speeding to earth with the power to drive even God’s own beloved Son into the wilderness.

Yet perhaps Mark’s more violent tone provides a fitting foil to the more dulcet strains of Matthew and Luke. Mark’s tone offers an important reminder that here we are before forces we do not control and cannot domesticate. The witness of the wilderness itself reminds us that the islands of domesticity we have carved out for ourselves still depend on the untamed and untameable forces of God’s good creation for their very life. Prominent biblical figures, Jesus not least among them, repair to the wilderness to draw near to God precisely because it is wild.

During the upcoming season of Lent, as we contemplate the forty days that Jesus Messiah spent fasting in the wilderness—where he endured Satan’s temptation, hung out with the wild beasts, and was also ministered to by angels—we do well to think about our Western culture’s pretension, and even anxiety, to control and domesticate people, places, creatures, and the course of events. Perhaps we can use our Lenten reflection to help us let go of this desire to be ‘masters of all we survey’. Maybe then the angels will come to minister to us—once we have made peace with the wildness within and without, when we have learned how to embrace our human life within the contours of what ICS professor emeritus Jim Olthuis calls “the wild spaces of love.”

I look at the ICS logo a little differently now, and I think I like it even more than I did before.

Shalom, friends!

Ron Kuipers