Forty Days and Forty Nights

At the end of this month, we enter the season of Lent:  those 40 days when we follow Jesus into the wilderness and prepare ourselves to celebrate His Easter victory.  In the last century an artist called Stanley Spencer planned to create a series of 40 paintings, each depicting a day in the wilderness.  In the end he completed nine, one of which is this month’s painting from 1939: ‘Christ in the Wilderness – Scorpions.’ It is held in a private collection.

Stanley Spencer lived and worked in the village of Cookham in Berkshire.  The village and the local countryside were the setting for many of his paintings, and the village’s inhabitants his models.  Through their everyday life he was trying to glimpse and convey the transcendent.  ‘Angels and dirt’ he called it:  the divine seen in the ordinary.  So in a painting of Christ carrying His cross, Jesus has the face of the local grocer.

Another villager modelled for this Jesus in the wilderness:  a strong, hefty, broad figure.  This is a great contrast to the Christ of stained-glass windows who often seems too good to be part of our world.  Here is real life:  a large man filling the canvas with His head, His hands and His feet.  This figure of Jesus comes as a shock:  a very human model, ordinary with nothing handsome or special about Him, apart from His tunic which seems to sprawl and undulate like the hills around.  Here is a Jesus born into this world and one with this world.

There are two focal points in the painting – the neat little scorpion and the massive, unkempt head contemplating each other.  One is life in all its hefty reality; the other a tiny creature able to squeeze that life out by one swift flick of its tail.

Jesus is shown in the wilderness pondering the life and ministry called of Him by God – a life and ministry that will take Him from the countryside into the towns and villages and take Him also to the death of Good Friday.  Will He find the strength and renewal to embrace that ministry during His time in the desert?

During Lent, as we follow Jesus, we seek to live for God.  That may mean dying to all that separates us from God.  He has a ministry, a calling for each of us.  As we contemplate that calling in this season of Lent, we may find it is a calling that leads us through these 40 days to life and Easter life – we may find it a journey that calls us to die to self to find our God.

The Revd Michael Burgess

 ‘Christ in the Wilderness – Scorpions’ hangs in a private collection. Copyright for use of the picture is now in the ‘Fair Use’ domain at

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