80 The child grew and became strong in spirit,
and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.

This is one of those verses it is tempting to skip over. But it is an intriguing intimation of John the Baptist’s early life.

What was John’s life like before he became a public figure?

Luke has little interest in the external circumstances of the prophet’s life; we get almost no information about the years preceding his emergence as a public figure. Luke is primarily interested in the fact that apparently John used his early years to become “strong in spirit”. He grew in his inner life. He developed within himself those qualities of wisdom, insight, strength, and integrity that would enable him to stand in the face of the pain and insanity of the world and call people back to truth and reality.

How did John, who Luke acknowledges, needed to grow in order to become “strong in spirit”, develop into an adult who was able to stand against the prevailing spirit of his age and be a man to whom crowds were drawn?

Luke says that John was “in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.”

It is hard to know what Luke meant by this description of John’s early years as being lived “in the wilderness”. But symbolically it is a powerful pointer to the way of integrity and truth. John spent his early years, cut off from the normal mechanisms of human interaction and exchange. He was alone in that place most of us spend much of our lives seeking to avoid.

John spent his early years in that “wilderness” place where there were no external supports for his sense of identity. He lived in a world that was not constantly patting him on the back and shoring up his fragile sense of ego.

It is only in this “wilderness” place that my “spirit” will grow “strong” enough to withstand the pressures and temptations of the world. To follow the path with the one to whom John points, is to find my way to that inner freedom that enables me to live in the external world with honesty and integrity because my identity does not depend upon any external supports.

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What techniques do I adopt in an attempt to avoid facing the wilderness places in life? What happens when I am willing to be in the wilderness?

(Giorgio Vasari 1511-64 The Baptism of Christ)