Paradise and Wilderness

The two concepts belong to the nature of spiritual pilgrimage illustrated in and through many religious and philosophical traditions: the Epic of Gilgamesh, Homer’s Odyssey, Plato’s Ascent from the Cave, Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Virgil’s Aeneid, Dante’s Divine Comedy, to name but a few. And not least of all, of course, the Exodus of the Hebrews. That story is central to the remarkable miracle of the feeding of the multitude in the wilderness as told by John in his Gospel.
It re-works the ancient themes of pilgrimage, especially those of the Exodus, the wilderness journey of the Hebrews out of Egyptian captivity to freedom found in the Law and in God’s provisions for them. All in spite of ourselves, in spite of our complaining and whining, we might say. Learning through suffering is part of the pilgrimage of thought as explored in both the Odyssey and in Exodus, for example.
Jesus is in the wilderness. It is a powerful image about the human condition in its limitations and failings and yet in its longings and seeking for what belongs to the truth of our humanity which is ultimately found in what is absolute, beyond all the changes and happenstances, beyond all the follies and wickednesses of the world; in short, God. The realization of our limitations serves as the moment of God’s provisions for us in our spiritual journey to God. A taste of paradise in the wilderness as “pilgrims through this barren land,” as one of the hymns puts it, essentially re-imaging the entire Exodus journey. It is simply and profoundly about how God provides for us in the wilderness journey of our lives spiritually and intellectually.
The story, as John presents it, emphasizes the limits of human enterprise and technique. Two hundred denarii or pennyworth of bread, to use the King James expression, is not enough to provide even a little for so many, Philip says to Jesus. And Andrew pipes in to say that “there is a lad here with five barley loaves and two small fishes,” only to ask rhetorically, “But what are they among so many?” Obviously not nearly enough.
This becomes the setting for the miracle. What is the miracle? As with all miracles, it is really about the miracle of life itself, the miracle of God. Jesus takes the bread, gives thanks, and gives the bread to the disciples to distribute to everyone else. All are fed and, if that is not enough, he bids the disciples to “gather up the fragments that remain that nothing be lost.” Twelve baskets of the fragments from the feast are collected. It is powerfully symbolic: one for each of the twelve tribes of Israel and by extension for each of the twelve apostles of the Christian church. God alone can make so much out of our so little; even more, God makes everything out of our nothing, even the nothingness of our sins. Thus, God provides.
The story recalls the wilderness journey of the Hebrews. They are fed with “manna from on high,” “the bread of heaven,” a taste of paradise, we might say. There is no pilgrimage without some sense of the end of the journey and that is what sustains us in the pilgrim ways. In Exodus, there is manna from on high, there is water from the stricken rock and all-powerful images about God and his providential care. It is about a deep insight into the truth of our humanity as found not in ourselves in our schemes and devices, our agendas, and self-preoccupations but in God.

In the Christian understanding, this story of the feeding of the multitude in the wilderness belongs to mid-Lent. It is refreshment and renewal in the midst of the journey. It strengthens us and prepares us for the ultimate provision: God gives his own life for us. Such is the meaning of Christ’s Passion and the meaning of Holy Communion. “God will provide himself a lamb” for the sacrifice as Abraham says to his Isaac in a most dramatic scene that informs the logic of Good Friday in Christ’s sacrifice for us. God provides.
So, too, March break serves as a break from classes for you to be refreshed and renewed. Some of you are traveling far and away to exotic places and adventures, to Tanzania and Thailand, to Mexico and the Caribbean. Others may make the journey into deep Halifax or perhaps to the far reaches of Falmouth! Journeys are more than about going from one place to another; they are also about learning and reflecting upon the nature of ourselves as knowers and learners and about what that implies; namely, that there are things to be learned and that you are essentially engaged in that task and challenge in one way or another.
My hope and prayer is that whether you travel far and wide or stay close to home, the March break - traditionally known as a reading break - will be a time of refreshment and renewal for you, a time to ponder, to reflect, and to be recollected in your souls. A kind of paradise in the wilderness.
(Rev’d) David Curry
Chaplain, Head of English & ToK teacher
Chair of the Department of Religion and Philosophy

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King’s-Edgehill School is located in Mi'kma'ki, the unceded ancestral territory of the Mi’kmaq People.