Welcoming Wild Beasts and Angels As Part of Lent

Jesus in the Wilderness by Stanley Spencer

I usually get Lent wrong.  I usually think of it as a time when I’m supposed to be holier, when I’m supposed to fast, pray, give alms, do good–all as a way to prepare myself for the celebration of Easter.  All of that usually lasts for about a week or so, but that’s not the only way in which I get Lent wrong.

The reading from Mark’s gospel on the first Sunday of Lent tells how Jesus spent his own personal “Lenten” time.  Only four verses long (Mark 1:12-15), it’s probably one of the shortest gospel readings of the liturgical calendar.  The first two verses state:

“The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert,
and he remained in the desert for forty days,
tempted by Satan.
He was among wild beasts,
and the angels ministered to him.”

Jesus’ forty days of preparation were filled with two things that I rarely allow into my observation of Lent: wild beasts and angels.  Jesus went into the desert for forty days and faced wild beasts.  When I observe Lent, I usually try to escape from the wild beasts of my life: the petty jealousies, the boastful pride, the unforgiving anger, and so much more. I try to pretend they are not there.  I try to eradicate them by ignoring them.  Jesus’ way was different: He faced up to them and He went among them.  Lent, He shows us, is not about working towards being a better person, but about facing the negative aspects of our lives, acknowledging their existence, and resisting the temptation to be ruled by them.

In facing temptations, Jesus didn’t earn their purification. Instead, he allowed angels to minister to Him.  In other words, what I do is not what is important in Lent.  What’s important is being open to allow God to enter my life.  It’s not about anything that I do, but about allowing God to do things in my life.  My American sense of independence and self-reliance rebels against that kind of thinking.  Shouldn’t I be doing something to work for salvation? Well, yes, but I think this gospel is reminding us that Jesus’ way was not the path of earning salvation, but of being open to God’s presence in the world.

The second half of the gospel reading shows us why Jesus spent 40 days in the desert with wild beasts and angels:

“After John had been arrested,
Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God:
“This is the time of fulfillment.
The kingdom of God is at hand.
Repent, and believe in the gospel.”

When he returns from the desert, Jesus goes about beginning his true ministry.  It’s a resurrection of sorts, in which His new life is characterized by His ability to see and know that God’s Reign is already active in the world. He has a new perception about ordinary life:  that it is already filled with God’s justice and love. The only thing left to do is to preach this news to others with the sure hope that they will turn their lives around and begin living the reality of God’s Reign on earth.

For those of who work for LGBT justice and equality in the church and society, this gospel reading has some very good news.  We have a tendency to spend a lot of time observing what is wrong and unjust in the world. In our desire for justice, it can seem like a lot is depending on what we do as individuals to help right those wrongs.  Lent can be a good time to refocus our attention inward on facing up to our own demons and beasts, as well as allowing our eyes to be open to angels and all the ways that God wants to work in our lives.

Moreover, Lent can be a time to prepare ourselves for a new life of seeing that God is already active in the world and that our role is not to create justice, but to witness and testify to God’s action for justice.  Our job is to refine our vision to be able to see God’s justice, to let others know it exists, and to invite them to see it, too.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

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