The gospel for the First Sunday of Lent this year is Mark’s version of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. The entire passage is only two verses long:
And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. (Mk 1:12-13)
Compared to the much more detailed versions of Matthew and Luke, Mark’s account seems disappointingly short on details. But if we concentrate on what he does tell us, we find some wonderful food for meditation.
First we should look at what Mark is saying. He surely intends (as do Matthew and Luke in their much longer accounts) that we should make the connection between the People of God who spent forty years in the wilderness, and Jesus “the New Israel,” who spent forty days there fasting and being tested. And perhaps more likely the gospel writers want us to recall the fast of Moses (Deut. 9:18) in the wilderness of Sinai, and that of Elijah near mount Horeb (cf. I Kgs 19:8).
I would like, however, to look at two interesting details in the second and final sentence in Mark: “He was with the wild beasts” and “angels came and ministered to him.”
THE BEASTS AND THE ANGELS
In the Old Testament wild beasts are associated with evil powers:
strong bulls of Bashan surround me;
they open wide their mouths at me,
like a ravening and roaring lion. …
For dogs are all around me;
a company of evildoers encircles me.
Psalm 91 has angels protecting the psalmist from wild beasts.
For he will command his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways.
On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.
You will tread on the lion and the adder,
the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot. (Ps 91:11-13)
Finally, in the account of creation in Genesis the first humans coexisted peacefully with animals:
God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.’ (Gen. 1:28)
So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field. (Gen. 2:19-20)
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea. (Isa. 11:6-9, cp. 65:24-25).
THE VISION OF PEACE
We can see in Mark's account of Jesus in the desert, then, a hint or a hope of the new creation of harmony and peace that will one day be brought about by Him.
The season of Lent is a good time for me to work at my part of bringing the “Peaceable Kingdom” into existence in my world and in my heart. During this holy season I can strive consciously to treat a certain person with more patience or compassion, I can take a step toward reconciliation with someone from whom I’ve become distanced. The ideas for “Lenten resolutions” in this area are countless.
What about bringing about the “peaceable kingdom” inside my own heart? Well, the idea of fasting is to lessen the hold that “the tempter” has on me precisely by taming, with God’s help, the unruly passions in me that try to run my life. Sort of like calling on the angels to help me with the “beasts” that threaten me. This is not about body-hating; in fact it’s just the opposite. The goal of my Lenten fast is that the world of instincts and the world of the spirit can come together in harmony so that I can live in tranquility with myself and with others, and so help bring about “that peace which the world cannot give.”
So, what about you? What specific things will you do during these forty days in the wilderness to help bring about Jesus’s dream of a “peaceable kingdom” in your heart and in your world?