Luke 4:1-13 . Philippians 2:6-8 . Hebrews 2:17
Walking south toward Jericho from the Jordan, Jesus left the road well before reaching the city. Turning northwest, he followed the broad rift into the barren wadis and hills of Arabah. As he turned, he smiled slightly at the fragrance of the earth, for it spoke a message of confirmation, yes, this is the place, this is the time. Something changed, slightly, immeasurably, and he felt his spirit lighten. It had been less than two hours since his baptism and he was in the wilderness, alone.
Breezes feathered in from the west, some bearing the scent of the Great Sea; Megáli Thálassa, as it was called by Greek seafarers. Fine sand drifted off the ridges and lodged in the folds of his tunic, in his hair and in his teeth. He felt as if he could become the same as the landscape itself, invisible.
The weight of the water skins he carried made walking lopsided, difficult.
His sandals gave little protection against the rocky trail. He stumbled. A rock rolled under his weight. A sharp edge lacerated his foot. He stopped and leaned against a ledge to see the wound. It hurt, but it was only a small cut. There was a little blood. It was not serious. He could see to it later.
At the Jordan, he had picked up a few small pebbles. Now he rubbed one clean and put it in his mouth to suck on; it would help keep his mouth moist.
This was not a welcoming place, yet some comfort was to be had; it was the land of his birth.
The anticipation of this fast held no fervor. Nonetheless, it was necessary. Aside from cleansing body and soul, it was the Jew’s belief that the fast deepened one’s spiritual insight and thus one’s wisdom; all in preparation for dealing with the vagaries of the human condition, they said.
That I may be ready for the work my Father in Heaven has prepared for me, Jesus thought … thus shall I cleanse my body and mind and spirit for the work you have prepared for me, Abba.
He walked for a time, then stopped. Refreshed by an errant breeze from the distant sea, he took an expansive breath. “At last,” he said, “I am about my Father’s business.”
Hiking up the broad ridge, Jesus let his thoughts run, fondly embracing his life in Nazareth. He remembered Joseph’s carpenter shop, where he learned to work with wood and the wonderful fragrance of cedar, fresh-cut. There he had learned, too, to cut stone, and to bend and shape metal.
With affection, he recalled his brother’s bar-mitzvahs, his sister’s bat-mitzvahs, and birthdays. Even now, the deep reflection and spiritual exaltation of Passover not two months gone rang in his soul like a shining bell. Ah, how he loved Shabbas as it began with the appearance of the third star in the early Friday dusk. Yes, and the joyous celebrations of Yom Kippur and Purim and Sukkot, the festivals of the Jewish faith.
He was so proud of them, his family. Each of the children took the word of our Father in Heaven to heart.
He recalled those treasured those moments with his mother, when she had held him as a young child and rocked him and bathed him in gossamer prayers.
A fall of sorrow rippled over him as his recalled Joseph’s death. He had loved that man who was his father yet not his father. He missed him and coveted the lessons of faith and of carpentry and of family that Joseph had blessed him with. He was taken too soon, Jesus thought. Disease had come to ravage his body, took him to the arms of death in less than a month. I prayed to the Father to spare him but my prayer was denied. Sadly, I relinquished my father to the Lord’s hands. It was Joseph’s time.
But Mother grieved so deeply for him, for so long, so many months. Her love for Joseph was a palpable thing, seen and felt by all the family. My, how under Joseph’s wing we had all grown sturdy and enduring over the years. Mary yet missed him deeply.
At the summit, Jesus paused to survey the land. Barren and sere it was, yet there was a holiness here, cast by the centuries of the history of the Jews, his people, the chosen ones of God. To the west, Samaria and the Great Sea; to the north, the Galilee, Lebanon, and then Phoenicia. Syria. The Decapolis rose in the east, and beyond, the land of the Nabateans. Southward lay Perea and Judea, Idumea and Lake Asphalitis.
Here in this place, on this mountaintop, on the cusp of his emergence as the messiah, joy rose up like a fountain in his breast. Arms raised over his head, he shouted to the sky, “The voice of the Lord is over the waters! The voice of the Lord is powerful, the voice of the Lord is majestic! The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars! He breaks the cedars of Lebanon in pieces! He makes Lebanon skip like a calf, Sirion like a young wild ox! The voice of the Lord strikes the desert! The Lord shakes the Desert of Kadesh! The voice of the Lord twists the oaks and strips the forests bare! And in his temple, all cry, ‘Glory!’ The Lord sits enthroned over the flood! The Lord is enthroned as King forever! The Lord gives strength to his people! He blesses his people with peace!”
Jesus knelt and prayed, “Peace. Shalom. Here, Abba, here in this place, here is peace. Sustain me in your peace throughout these next days. I cannot do this without you, Father, for although you have sent me to serve the lost sheep of Israel, I rely upon your strength, your wisdom, your grace. You have prepared me, equipped me, O Lord. Harden my will, that I may endure this test. Give me the words, Father, empower me for the work you have prepared for me to do. May the Lord God Almighty be glorified in all that I say and do.”
He bowed and rested his forehead on the ground. He took a deep breath, then stood. He spoke, “Time to find a shelter.”
Two, three kilometers down the ridge and toward the sea, he came upon a basin surrounded by a deep-cut cleft where boulders bulwarked three sides. This would give protection from the wind, and from the afternoon sun. On the sandy floor, a place to sleep, and close by, he could build a small fire ring to stave the night’s chill. There was even a kind of altar-stone where he could kneel and pray.
“This will do,” he said. “This will do.”
He set to work. He dug a basin in the lee of the boulder that would give the most protection from the day’s heat. There, he placed his ten water skins, then covered them with a flat rock. He made a circle of fist-sized rocks near his sleeping place, where he carefully placed a bowl of glowing coals. Then he spent nearly an hour wandering about the area looking for twigs and branches for the fire.
That done, he climbed to the top of the ridge and sat and watched the sun drift down to the horizon through a wash of yellow and gold and lavender pastels. The skies darkened and stars peeked through the deep blue heavens, first one, then another, then many. It was again time for prayer.
Jesus spent an hour talking to his Father before he returned to his shelter. There, he took water, then prayed again. When his weariness became a distraction, he slept.
The next morning, Jesus awoke beneath an overcast sky. He drank some water, sparingly, and knelt at his altar stone and resumed his prayers.
“Abba, Father, the time has come. Grant me strength, O Lord, that I may complete the work you have prepared for me.”
For much of the morning, Jesus prayed, asking for wisdom and stamina, for blessing for his ministry. He prayed for his family, for their protection and their sustenance. He prayed for the temple priests, and for the Pharisees and the Saducees and the scribes. He prayed for the Essenes and the Zealots, and for the many Israelites, those who lived in Jerusalem and Judea, for those who worked the land and engaged in the trades and the guilds. He prayed for the Israelites now scattered by the Diaspora, and for their return to Israel. He prayed for his disciples who would come later, whoever they might be. He prayed for his own courage, for perseverance, and for the grace to love the unlovable. When he thirsted, he paused to take small sips of water. When he became weary and struggled to think of what more he could pray for, he waited to hear from his Father in Heaven.
It was in these times that Jesus felt Abba speak to his heart, powerfully, lovingly. Encouraged and refreshed, Jesus renewed his prayers, now asking that he would be steadfast in his devotion to God, the Father, and that Abba would guard him against temptation. “Sustain me in righteousness and grace,” he prayed.
Feeling the need to rest, he lay down in his ‘bed’ and quickly fell asleep. It was late afternoon when he awoke. Again, he walked to the crest of the ridge to look out over the mountains and canyons toward the Great Sea. He had always loved sunsets. As expressions of his Father’s glorious creativity, he found peace there.
This evening did not disappoint, for the declining sun painted the skies with a brush, broad and intense with colors and beauty found nowhere else in the world. He immersed his soul in the pageantry of his Father’s hand, watching the display with awe, and with humility. When it was done, he gave thanks.
The next day was much like the one before. He wanted to become
accustomed to not eating and to focus his prayers on preparation for the years to come, his ministry, and upon the remaining steadfast in obedience to his Father’s will.
Whenever his stomach griped, he winced but knew this would pass soon. As the third day came upon him, the discomfort lessened.
The next few days were little different. He adjusted to the lack of food, and on the fifth, Shabbas, he took pleasure in reciting the prayers of blessing and thanksgiving.
His routine changed little. Each of his days were consistent as he attended to prayer and adoration of Yahweh. He interspersed his prayers with the psalms of David, singing in a voice both clear and plaintive. He sang softly, worshiping his Yahweh, his Abba; joy and devotion flowed from his heart and his lips.
As the sunlight waned on the eighth day, ushering dusk into the hills, Jesus began the think of food. At first, he remembered the last meal he had taken at the Jordan in preparation for his fast: broiled fish, a handful of figs and raisins, a small cup of wine.
He thought of his mother’s cooking, recalling the dishes of tender lamb, of tasty flat loaves of barley bread dripping with honey, how he dearly loved those as a youth. He thought of olives and figs and pomegranates, apples, melons, beans and lentils and leeks, and onions and garlic. He thought of the wine which lent itself so wonderfully to meals, and to the camaraderie of friends and family. He could almost smell the fragrance of roasting meats, taste the delicious and subtle flavors of the dishes, blending, satisfying the palate, and the soul. Good food enhanced the pleasure of the family as they came together, for it elicited joy and warmth and good conversation. His brothers and sisters, ah, what a beloved family, treasures one and all.
As the family’s eldest man, after Joseph’s death, Jesus had assumed his role at table. Their love for one another was such a lovely thing, Miriam and Joanna, James and Jude, and, of course, their mother, Mary. He loved them so. He missed them, wanted to be with them. Although his head ached and his stomach hurt, the ache in his heart was worse.
It was not until the eve of the eighth day that he began to feel the effects of the fast. Dizziness assaulted him with a suddenness, then dissipated, only to return. His innards cramped. Waves of nausea rose up. His lacerated foot had not completely healed and the soreness throbbed. His legs ached, badly. His headache worsened. He felt weak and with an urgency, wanted to lie down for a very long rest. He considered his need to pray, but the mere idea was burdensome, making prayer difficult to engage. He thought about quitting: If I left now, I could be in Jericho, even Jerusalem before morning.
Distraught, his cry went up, “Abba, help me! Grant me a measure of comfort, of peace for my mind, for my spirit …”
And as so many times before, the peace of Yahweh came quickly, calming him, dissipating his distress. He gave thanks, and slept.
Jesus did not begin the tenth day as he had the others. Upon awakening, he prayed simply, “Lord, today, may you grant me peace.” Taking a water skin, he walked again to the ridgetop and when finding a saddlerock, he sat and made himself comfortable. Settled, he gazed out across the wadis and beyond to the sea, wrapping his thoughts around his mission, what it required and what it would ultimately yield.
From the south, a bird rode the updrafts on static wings, its head moving slightly as it scent-searched for food. Jesus saw that it was a vulture and smiled as he remembered its common name, ‘Pharaoh’s chicken.’ As it neared, he could see it’s naked, wrinkled head and its dagger-like beak, designed to rend carrion. Horrid in appearance, such a creature was no less necessary to the earth’s master plan than the more grand and beautiful animals. This was a creature that would lend to the scheme of ‘dust to dust,’ a creature so repugnant in its appearance and function that no one would ever dream of eating such a thing, and rightfully so. He reflected at the intricacy of Earth’s grand design, for all living things had specific functions, special purposes, to bring balance to the earth and skies and seas. Not unlike men and women and children the world over, the loss of any life, regardless of its size or significance, would have some impact upon the scheme, upon life’s balance, and upon Yahweh’s very heart.
Daily, there was little to distract him, for the sky was clear and there was little wildlife about, save Pharaoh’s chicken and a few coneys. Even the inconvenience of having to relieve himself was slight, for much of the water he took in was expelled in sweat. He always drank sparingly, knowing that what water he had must last him the entire forty days. There was no water to be had here in the heights and depths of the Judean wilderness.
He spoke his prayer aloud. “Father, that I have been sent to serve and not to be exalted, this I know, this I accept. How my servanthood will be revealed from day to day, I entrust to your hands to reveal to me in the fullness of time. You have sent me to wrest this world from Satan’s grasp, to take back, to restore what was lost in the Garden. Ultimately, I know what you require and I consider that time with dread. Fill my heart, Abba, with resolve, that I may do your will and your will alone. Let not the temptations of the flesh and eyes bend my heart from your work, let not the flowers that fall from a blossoming reputation cause my heart and will to drift away from you. Make my heart a pillar so steadfast that it will stand strong for your glory. May I look neither to the left nor to the right, away from the path you have placed beneath my feet. Abba … your will be done. Yours alone. Amen and amen.”
As he closed his prayer, Jesus felt the dread and wonder of his ministry yet to come. Its terrible majesty etched the lines of his face, and of his heart and with his last amen, he felt the heaviness of duty more than ever before. Not even when he became the steward over the first Passover seder after Joseph’s death did he feel such weight. In his spirit, he sensed what was to come, and how it would change the earth as never before. His mission would rip a hole in the very fabric of time.
For the entire day and well into evening, Jesus sat and watched until all that lay before him blurred into meaninglessness and prayed until his thoughts and words ceased to flow. There were times he felt as if his mind had filled with porridge; other times, it raced like Roman chariots of war.
It seemed as if this fast, this exile of sand and stones, would never end.
A hazy quality enveloped the next few days as fatigue and hunger took their toll. Jesus slept more, prayed when he could, took water when thirst and the thick and pasty feeling in his mouth impelled him to drink. He consumed more water, perhaps, than he would have had he been more alert, more sound of mind. In his debilitated state, discipline struggled for foothold. “Sustain me, Abba, that I may complete my fast, that it would honor you,” was his prayer.
On the sixteenth day of his fast, a splinter of sunrise broke the night away from the eastern horizon and awakened him. Finally accustomed to the emptiness of his stomach, on this morning, somehow, he felt rested, restored. He looked at his lacerated foot, brushed it with his finger; finally, it was healed.
He was clear of mind. He had no doubt that he could finish the fast. Rising, he went to his cache to find that five waterskins remained. At less than halfway through his fast, would this be enough? He took a sparing drink and returned the skin with reverent care. For the next twenty-four days, these five skins would be his lifeline.
Kneeling at his altar-stone, Jesus eagerly began this day’s devotions. With a heart filled with praise, he raised his arms and sang, “O Lord, my Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens! From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise because of your glory! When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the sun and the moon and the stars which you have set in place, I praise you with all my heart! In the heavens you have pitched a tent for the sun, which s like a bridegroom coming forth from his pavilion! It rises at one end of the heavens and makes it circuit to the other! I will tell of all your wonders! I will be glad and rejoice in you, I will sing praise to your name, O Most High, for your way is perfect! Your word is flawless! Your law is perfect, it revives my soul! Your precepts are trustworthy and right, giving joy to my heart! They are more precious than gold, than much pure gold! They are sweeter than honey, than honey in the comb! O Lord, my Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!”
With the song of David echoing through his soul and overwhelmed by Yahweh’s perfect love and grace, he fell to his face, and wept.
From a distance, Lucifer watched quietly with cold and dark eyes, wondering about this man who prayed alone in the wilderness.
Knowing it helped the days to pass, Jesus set a regular routine – up with sunrise, walk and pray, pray and walk until the heat of the day called him to rest in the shade of the overhang. There he thought about his return to Nazareth and his family and the ministry, how his life, the lives of others might change, and thought of whatever else came to mind. Then he prayed until an hour before sunset, then walked to the ridgecrest where he watched the day come to an end.
Returning to his campsite, he took a drink of water and enjoyed a time of thanksgiving and exaltation of Yahweh, his Abba. With a small fire at his side, he surrendered to sleep.
On the thirty-fourth day, everything changed.
Jesus slept well past sunrise, waking with the sun’s glare full on his face. His head felt thick, and heavy, like a stone. His tongue, now swollen, seemed to have been replaced by an old ram’s tail, and his breath was toxic. He tried to spit and failed. He had no saliva.
He ran his fingers through his hair, and it felt like straw, and strands fell out easily. He had lost weight, at least one stone, more likely two. Like parchment, his skin was pale and brittle. Despite the day’s heat, he felt cold and shook, uncontrollably.
He looked at his hands and his arms and legs and feet. Shrunken muscles made his joints look like knobs. Weariness, weakness sullied his body. His heart beat sluggishly, faintly, as if his veins had filled with mud. His breathing rasped; he struggled to fill his lungs and when he looked at his surroundings, it was as if he was looking through clouded glass. He tried to stand and dizziness quavered his knees, making him fall back to the ground with a stolid thump. Painfully, he reached his arms over his head as he lay back on the earth. His words, “Raca! I shall lay here and await whatever is to come,” came with a snarl.
Later, the dream that awakened him hovered in his mind … an unsettling aura devoid of details; the pictures, the message now forgotten.
Confused, weakened, he could pray no more than “Abba … help me.” On hands and knees, he crawled to where his remaining waterskins lay, inert and empty, save one. That last one, meant to sustain him through the final days of his fast, had leaked. The water was gone.
Well into the late afternoon, Jesus could do no more than lay next to his water cache, waiting, pondering what to do. Dehydration had taken his strength, his senses. Spent, he fell again into merciful sleep.
Stiff and cold, Jesus awoke to a nighttime sky. He struggled to sit, wrapping his arms about his knees. He pulled his robe close to his body. Shivers rattled his bones.
It was then that he heard the voice of the Lord.
“My son, take courage, for you have endured this trial, the first of many, with courage and faithfulness. In you, Jesus, I am well pleased. Take heart, my beloved child, my only son, for I know the journey you must take. Know that you are wrapped in the embrace of my great love. My angels watch over you, my beloved one. You are safe in their care. Rest now, and I will restore your strength, for joy comes in the morning.”
As the sun rolled over the eastern horizon, a glorious sunrise unfolded, painting the underside of the night clouds with a stunning palette of orange and cerise and salmon and gold. As Jesus watched the divine artwork, he knew that as his Father’s hand was painting not only the heavens but his own spirit with glory.
Looking toward is pile of empty waterskins, he saw prints of feet, bare, larger than his own, leading to the cache and then away. There, in the middle of the empty skins sat two new ones, these, round, and full with water.
It was the fortieth day. The fast had ended. As Jesus awoke at dawn and readied himself for his return, an angel appeared before him. Jesus knew who it was – Lucifer.
The dark angel spoke, “I have been watching you.”
Jesus did not reply.
“You must be very hungry,” said Lucifer. “You have been here for what, forty days with nothing to eat.
Still, Jesus said nothing.
Lucifer pointed to a rock. It shimmered. He said, “I know you are hungry. Since you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.”
From the Torah, Jesus’ eyes narrowed as he replied, “It is written, ‘Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
Lucifer raised his eyebrows. He thought, well, that was unexpected. Concentrating, he cast a vision where he and Jesus stood on the edge of the temple’s Royal Colonnade. They looked down at the Kidron Valley that lay below the holy city of Jerusalem. “Since you are the Son of God,” said Lucifer, “throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you to guard you carefully, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.”
“It is also written,” said Jesus, “’Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” There was a hard edge to Jesus’ voice.
Angered, Lucifer cast a second vision and showed Jesus to a high mountain. He gestured to the spread of all the kingdoms of the world laying before them in splendor. He said, “All this I will give you if you will bow down and worship me.”
A third time, Jesus spoke to him from the Torah, this time in a voice stern with warning. “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’”
Then, Jesus commanded, “Away from me, Lucifer!”
As he had come, Lucifer disappeared, leaving Jesus as he had found him, hungry and weary. Jesus sat, heavily, and reached for a water skin. Thirst had become a constant fact of life and though the water was warm and tasted of the skin, it refreshed him.
From behind, a hand reached over his shoulder. It held an apple. Jesus looked at it, took it, and said, “Michael. Thank you.”
“You found the water, I see.”
“Yes. Thank you for that, too.”
Another hand offered him bread and a piece of cheese. Jesus ate lightly and drank again from the skin, relishing the restoration it brought.
The angels, Michael and Gadriel, brought forth a bowl of water and a cloth for washing his face and hands. They rubbed his aching shoulders and feet. Together, they sang songs of David.
Jesus stood. The fast was done.
Now, he thought … it begins.
Copyright © 2022 Peter K. Schipper
Q. Why the title, Via Maris? A. It’s where Jesus walked, the region in which his influence began. Some 300 years before Christ, the network of Roman roads, the viae Romanae, began to extend the empire’s reach, eventually reaching Gaul, Britain, Asia and Africa. For...
Luke 4:1-13 . Philippians 2:6-8 . Hebrews 2:17 Walking south toward Jericho from the Jordan, Jesus left the road well before reaching the city. Turning northwest, he followed the broad rift into the barren wadis and hills of Arabah. As he turned, he smiled slightly at...