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The Seventh Sunday after Trinity

Fr. David Curry

August 2, AD2003


“How can any one satisfy these men with bread

here in the wilderness”


“I can’t get no satisfaction”, Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones famously sang. Whether he sang it again at the post-SARS celebration in the wilderness of urban Toronto, I am not sure. Regardless, the phrase captures evocatively, I think, a modern theme, the theme of the wilderness that is within us.


What do we mean by wilderness?  For there are, of course, different senses to the idea of wilderness.  In general, though, I suppose most of us think of the wilderness somewhat romantically as places remote and pristine, as paradises of quiet solitude and natural beauty, unspoiled and unsullied by the inhuman tyranny of post-industrial and technocratic society; in short, as paradisal places to which we can go, like Canada’s National Parks, to get away from the stresses and strains of urban life, from the mindless mediocrity of the over-regulated bourgeois culture of middle-class life.  Such wildernesses suggest that in getting in touch with nature, with the land and the sea in the simplicity of its cleansing freshness and rugged beauty, we can recover something of the dignity of our humanity.  There are, of course, the blackflies.


The paradox is that we need to get away, it seems, from the human community to regain our humanity.  And there is the further paradox of escaping to these so-called natural wildernesses which are inescapably human and social constructs, places which we have designated as areas not to be desecrated in quite the same way by urban and industrial development.  The wilderness is a natural preserve within the complexity of forms of contemporary culture.  In a way, the wilderness is not out there any longer.  Even the West Nile virus has become an urban threat and not a wilderness or jungle danger. 


This is a far cry from the wilderness of The Epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest literary work in human culture.  There the wilderness lies outside the walled city, outside the human community and, in a way, threatens the city of man.  The wilderness is the mythical yet real “Humbaba”, the guardian of the forest, an indeterminate and indefinite figure who expresses the precise sense of the wilderness for such ancient cultures.  The wilderness is the fearful uncertainty that lies outside the city’s walls, the fearful uncertainty belonging to cultures who often exhibit a great practical wisdom but are unsure about the principle of reason itself, namely, the Logos of God.


The Scriptures offer, too, a rich and sophisticated commentary on the various senses of wilderness.  There is the sense of the wilderness as the natural beauty of God’s creation - the mountains and the hills, the valleys and the plains, the wonder of such creatures like the monsters of the deep, Leviathan, whom he made for the sheer pleasure of it, the power of the thunder storm, the sea and the order of the seasons, and so on; in short, the wonder of the wilderness as the place of God’s glory in nature, the wilderness as the created work of God revealing his glory.  “God saw everything that he had made and behold it was very good”.  In its created truth and being, creation as wilderness is not a place of fearful uncertainty; instead, it is emphatically and essentially “very good”.


But the Scriptures also know about the wilderness as the place of wildness and alienation.  This, however, arises from within us.  The created order becomes a wilderness because of our rebellion against God and his order.  It is the story of the Fall.  It signals the underlying meaning of human experience.  The wilderness is not simply a physical place - barren, isolated, remote, and wild - it is also a place spiritually, a place within.  The wilderness is within us.  We make the created order a wilderness by virtue of our sin and presumption.


The aspect of the wilderness as a physical place, empty, remote and barren, and the wilderness as the reality of human sin are presented to us in the Epistle and Gospel for this day.  Both senses of the wilderness, of course, are related; ultimately the wilderness without arises from the wilderness within.  This is, we might say, the great Biblical insight.  In the Scriptures we are given the further image of the divine provisions for us in the wilderness of our disobedience.  The point being that God does not abandon us in the wilderness of our abandonment of God.  He provides, for instance, the Law and the Manna from on high for his wayward and wayfaring people.  Such a view of things has the profoundest consequences.  It means that in the physical wilderness we are constantly reminded of the wilderness within, on the one hand, and the care and compassion of God “while we were yet sinners”, on the other hand.


Such ideas come together wonderfully in these lessons which have an unavoidable sacramental quality to them.  They recall us to the forms of sanctified life belonging to our life in and with Christ.  The Epistle speaks sacramentally about Baptism by reminding us of the ultimate form of our alienation from God such that our life is not just empty and nothing worth from an experiential standpoint but, more seriously, from a spiritual standpoint, we are dead in ourselves, dead in sin, the death that is the rejection of God, the only reality there is.  Dead to God, the principle of all reality, we are little more than the walking dead.  But as the Epistle reminds us we have been “made free from sin”.  How? by the free gift of God in Jesus Christ.  In baptism we die to ourselves and live for God, but only by virtue of Christ’s sacrifice and its application to us individually in the corporate reality of the Church.  We participate in Christ’s death and resurrection.


The gospel relates the familiar story of the feeding of the multitude in the wilderness.  In a remote and empty place, Jesus teaches, filling hungering souls and minds with the good things of God, but he also sees to their physical needs, the needs of the body.  It is all of a piece, the teaching and the feeding.  It belongs to the redemption of the wilderness within all of us, making the wilderness a place of compassion and mercy.  We cannot be satisfied in the wildernesses of our disobedience.  We cannot be satisfied with the illusory paradises of this world.  They are, at best, reminders to us of the greater paradise of God, “the free gift of God is eternal life” and that is more than paradise recalled.  It is the paradise where we are with the God who cares for us and whose care is the challenge of our lives.


To live in the mercy of the God who has entered into the wilderness of human sin and wickedness, into the barren wilderness of the human experience, is to live sacramentally.  It means to live through the provision he has made for us, the provision which is nothing less than the gift of himself.  But he has done so to bring redemption, the redemption of all our sorrows and the pain of our past and our present, but only through the radical sacrifice of his cross.  The Holy Eucharist is about our continued participation in his life for us, “having obeyed from the heart that pattern of teaching” that sets us free from the emptiness of human experience and frees us to God.


We betray the objective institutions of our lives, the family, marriage, church, school and state - institutions which can be the vehicles of God’s redemptive and sanctified grace - when we try to remake them in the name and in the image of our contemporary experience.  To do so is to make them barren wildernesses.  And we betray our friendships, those precious and blessed things in which something of the grace and love of God is communicated and known, when we try to make them marriages, something which they are not and cannot be.  The children of experience may have to learn the hard bitter truth of experience.  It cannot satisfy.  We are nothing unless we are grafted into the life of Christ and live through his grace according to “that pattern of teaching” which is our life in Christ.  The church is not the church when she betrays “that pattern of teaching” but becomes another barren wilderness of pride and narcissism.  We have to experience our own loneliness and emptiness, it seems, if ever we will discover our communion with God without which we can have no communion with one another.


In the wilderness, we have communion with Christ.  It is the only satisfaction that there is, the only satisfaction that matters, come what may in the ups and downs, the sorrows and sadnesses, the pain and the dying of our lives.  He is our satisfaction even in the wilderness of our lives.


How can any one satisfy these men with bread

here in the wilderness”