It seems we’ve just put away the Christmas decorations only to replace them with ashes. But here we are – five days into the season of Lent. We begin, as we always do on this first Sunday of Lent, with an account of Jesus’ forty days in the desert. This year we’re going to reflect on Mark’s account.
“The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days…” The Spirit had been guiding history to this moment for a very long time. Recall the Spirit, the ruah Yahweh, the mighty wind of God, breathing life into the dark waters of the abyss. (Genesis 1:2) Recall the covenant’s dramatic renewal while Moses was leading the Israelites through the desert. “The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai. The cloud settled on it for six days, and on the seventh day God called Moses from the midst of the cloud. To the Israelites the glory of the Lord was seen as a consuming fire on the mountaintop. But Moses passed into the midst of the cloud as he 2 went up to the mountain; there he stayed for forty days and forty nights. (Exodus 24: 16- 18)” Recall the prophet Elijah, fleeing into the desert to escape Queen Jezebel’s wrath after he defeated the priests of her god, Baal. There, God fed him. “Then strengthened by that food, he walked forty days and forty nights to the mountain of God, Horeb. (1Kings 19: 8)”
“The Spirit drove Jesus into the desert…to be tempted by Satan.” Who is Satan? The concept of Satan developed throughout the composition of Old and New Testaments. The original meaning of the word satan was adversary, someone in opposition to another person.
Job was tested by a satan, an angel from God’s court, to determine the extent of his faithfulness to God.
While the Jewish people were under Persian rule, they were exposed to the philosophical concepts Zoroastrianism that depicted the universe as a battleground between the power of darkness and the power of light. Satan was then gradually seen as the father of darkness who worked continually against God’s light. In fact, John’s entire Gospel is constructed around this cosmic struggle between darkness and light. When Judas left the Last Supper to betray Jesus to the chief priests, John suggested that the reign of Satan was dangerously near: he noted, “And it was night!” (John 13: 30)
“He was among the wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him.” What a wonderful ending to this account of Jesus’ retreat into the desert! The gospels of Matthew and Luke interpreted this retreat as a time of testing when Jesus confronted his inner demons. Mark’s interpretation is much more subtle and wonderfully simple. Jesus’ retreat into the desert was a preparation for his role in the history of salvation.
It began when God called to Abraham and entered into a personal covenant with him. He was the father of Israel’s faith, and his progeny would become a great people as numerous as the sands of the sea. He was followed may years later by Moses who sealed that covenant with the entire people of Israel at Mount Sinai. Jesus is the fulfillment of the covenant because in his very person heaven and earth have been united. He is God and man.
Mark’s reference to the wild beasts is a gentle reference to Isaiah’s prophecy of the Messianic time when “the wolf shall be the guest of the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; the calf and the young lion shall browse together, with a little child to guide them…for all the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the Lord, as water covers the sea. (Isaiah 11:6, 9b)” The wild beasts in the desert witness to the peace and harmony of the new world that Jesus will proclaim: the Kingdom of God. Mark then adds that the angels were ministering to him. These two images, the gentle wild beasts, and the ministering angels, pay homage to the peace of the Kingdom of God when God’s will is “done on earth ,as it is in heaven.
But the Kingdom is not yet complete, but it has been set in motion. It has been born, and will mature and grow slowly over the centuries.
This year we begin Lent with a reflection on the Messianic time, the time of fulfillment as the Gospel puts it. During this forty-day Lenten retreat the Church invites us to ponder the time of fulfillment, and to nurture within our hearts the peace and harmony of the Kingdom. It’s a time for the angels to minister to us. It’s a time for the Kingdom of God to grow a bit more within us, so that through us, the Kingdom of God will come to embrace all of creation.