With Beasts and Angels

Mark 1:9-15

The first time I ever slept out under the stars I was in Cub Scouts.  Scouts go camping.  It’s what they do.  So when our little Cub den was still brand new, it was decided that the dads and the boys should go on a campout.  I think the moms were the ones who decided that.  And so it came to pass that one Friday afternoon in mid May a gaggle of excited boys and their job-frazzled dads made their way to O’Neill Regional Park in the wild foothills of Orange County.  

The dads, in their wisdom, had decided that, since it was May and there was no rain in the forecast, tents were not necessary.  So when it was time for bed we simply rolled out our sleeping bags on top of tarps and climbed in.  The boys, of course, were sent to bed before the dads who stayed up for quite a while, talking and smoking around the campfire.  

I remember lying there in my bag looking up through twisted oak branches into the night sky.  It was a clear night, moonless, vast and deep, with no clouds between us and the stars, and as I lay there, bundled in my bag, I became uncomfortably aware that there was no roof above me and no walls around me.  What had seemed like a fun idea when we were just talking about it was turning out to be a little bit scary.  Not that I would ever admit that.

I could hear the dads talking quietly over by the campfire.  But I could hear other things, too.  Things rustling in the trees and the scrub.  I knew I was supposed to be sleeping, but I was wide awake with worries and questions too big and too frightening for my eight-year-old mind under that deep, moonless sky. 

Finally, I heard the conversation at the campfire breaking up and the dads saying goodnight.  And then my dad was climbing into his bag next to mine.  “Dad?”  I said.  

“Are you still awake?” he asked.  

“Yeah.  Dad, can I ask you something?” 

“What?”  

“Are there wild animals here?” 

There was a long pause and I was about to ask him again but he quietly said, “Um hm.  Yep.”

“Well like…what kind?”

“Oh… coyotes, bears, bobcats, mountain lions, racoons, possums, skunks.”

“Coyotes, bears and mountain lions?”

“Look, you don’t need to worry about bears or coyotes or mountain lions.  They don’t like to get too close to people in groups.  We’re okay.  They won’t bother us.  Okay?”

“Okay.”  

“Now make sure you tuck in that corner of your sleeping bag.  You don’t want a snake or a scorpion crawling in with you in the middle of the night.  Now goodnight.  Go to sleep.”

Jesus was in the wilderness 40 days, tested by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and angels waited on him.  I wonder what kind of noises he heard in the night.

When Jesus rises out of the waters of the Jordan at his baptism, he is a new person.  Not merely a new person, but a new kind of person.  The Spirit has descended into him—that’s what it says in Greek, into him—so he is possessed by the Spirit.  The voice of the Holy One has declared his identity: “You are my Son, the Beloved.  With you I am well pleased.”  From this moment on, Jesus is a new kind of human, a new creation.  From this moment on in Mark’s gospel, he will refer to himself as the Human One, or as we used to translate it, the Son of Man.  

St. Paul described Jesus as the first-born of a new humanity.  In 1 Corinthians 15, he refers to Jesus as the “last Adam.”  In 2 Corinthians 5:17, Paul made it clear that inclusion in this new humanity is extended to all of us who are baptized into Christ.  He writes, “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”

The identity declared to Jesus in his baptism is extended to you and to me in our baptism.  When we are baptized, the Spirit is imparted to us and we, too, hear the words, “You are God’s child.  You are beloved. God is pleased with you.”  And in that word and by that Spirit we are made a new creation.

So if I’m new, why is it that on so many days I feel so old?

Well, I think it’s because of what comes next.

“And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.  He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts.”  

The Spirit immediately threw him out into the wilderness where he was tested by the Adversary. The opposition.  

The word that’s translated as “tempted,” peirazō, can also be translated as “tested.”  Tested and tempted aren’t necessarily the same thing.  A temptation may be a test, but a test doesn’t have to be a temptation.  Testing may be done to try to learn the nature of someone or something.  To assess their character.  To take their measure. Temptation is an effort to lead someone into sin.  It’s true that in Matthew and Luke he is clearly being tempted.  But here in Mark I get the sense that something more subtle is going on, which is why I think Mark doesn’t go into details.

Mark says he was tested by Satan.  Satan as a Hebrew noun means “adversary.”  As a verb it means “to oppose” or “to be hostile.”  So Jesus, the New Human, fresh from his baptism, was thrown into the wilderness by the Spirit to be challenged by the opposition.  I don’t think we need to dwell too much on how that opposition appeared to him, because I think sometimes we face it, too.

Forty days is a long time to be in the wilderness.  Forty days is a long time to be alone with your thoughts.   I think we can imagine at least some of the voices Jesus may have heard because we hear them too.  You know the ones.  The ones that catch you off guard when you’re tired and vulnerable. The ones that sneak in between  your thoughts.  The ones that ask, “Are you really a child of God?  Are you really beloved?  If God is so well-pleased with you, why are you having such a rough time here?”

There’s nothing you can do with those voices except confront them.  Don’t try to debate them.  Whenever Martin Luther was challenged by these voices, which was apparently fairly often, he would just make the sign of the cross over himself and simply state, “I am a baptized child of God.”  Sometimes he would add, “Now go away and leave me alone.”  One time he did throw an ink pot at the shadow bedeviling him, but that makes a huge mess, so I don’t recommend it.

After you come to terms with those voices that challenge your identity as a child of God, after you’ve anchored that piece of your self-understanding in quiet confidence, the Adversary may come at you with the big, hanging question.  “Okay.  You really are a child of God.  You really are beloved.  So now what?  What are you going to do about it?”

I think that might have been the thing that tested Jesus most during those 40 days: the Now What question, thinking about how he was going to live out his identity as the Human One, thinking about how and when and where he was going to exercise his power so that his work opposing power didn’t become all about power. 

Sometimes, like Jesus, we find ourselves thrown into the wilderness.  Most often we don’t choose to be there.  Stuff happens.  Opposition happens.  Pain happens.  Illness happens.  Accidents happen.  Death happens.  Pandemics happen.  Suddenly, we’re in the wilderness and we hear wild beasts in the night.

But the wilderness can be where we learn what it really means to be God’s children.  Sometimes the hard, flinty places of life are where we realize that being loved by God doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll always be comfortable.  These are the places where we learn to trust.  But learning to trust takes time.  It takes practice, learning to sit through the night wrapped in love you can’t feel from a God you can’t see providing a kind of protection you don’t understand. 

You can only learn that when you feel vulnerable.  You can only learn that in the wilderness.  You can only learn that where the wild beasts are, real and metaphorical.

Mark is the only one of the gospel writers who notes that Jesus “was with the wild beasts.”  I’ve read interesting interpretations of that line.  Some think it’s a reference to the book of Daniel where the kings of the nations are represented as wild beasts.  So maybe this line suggests that Jesus was considering how to confront political authority. Could be.  Some have wondered if Mark is suggesting that Jesus was having an experience something like a Native American vision quest.  

These are interesting ideas and they have their merits.  But I wonder if it isn’t just that there really were wild beasts.

Even today there are still leopards and hyenas in the Judean wilderness.  In Jesus’ day there were also lions, bears and cheetahs.  So in addition to confronting The Adversary in whatever form The Adversary happened to take, maybe Jesus was also coming to terms with the predatory creatures of the wilderness.  Perhaps Jesus in the wilderness was finding some kind of relationship with those beasts, reminding them and himself that they shared a connection with God and that they had no reason to fear each other.

Howard Thurman said it this way in Disciplines of the Spirit: “To Jesus, God was Creator of life and the living substance, the Living Stream upon which all things moved, the Mind containing time, space, and all their multitudinous offspring. And beyond all these, He was Friend and Father.”  Perhaps, like Saint Francis, Jesus saw these wild beasts as brothers and sisters.

I remember one night lying in a tent in Ngorongoro Preserve in Tanzania.  I wasn’t afraid, exactly, but I was a little nervous, because I knew that outside the tent there were wild animals.  I knew they were there because I had seen them as we drove through the Preserve that day.  Elephants. Leopards.  Baboons.  Lions.  Wildebeest.  Hyenas.  It didn’t help my nervousness any that I could hear the gibbering of a pack of hyenas not too far from our camp.  And, of course, as I was lying there thinking of the thousand and one ways to die by animal, I realized that nature was calling in a more personal way and I really needed to go to the latrine. Which was at the other end of our camp.  Well, I put on my shoes, and left the tent and did what needed doing, praying all the way.

When I got back to my tent, I stopped and stood outside, looking out into the African night, and listening.  The hyenas were still gibbering, but it didn’t sound as menacing.  It really did sound kind of like laughter.  I could hear the soft rumbling and shuffling from a small family of elephants about a hundred yards away from us.  It was an almost friendly sound.  Somehow, as I had prayed my way to the latrine and back, my anxiety about the wild beasts in the dark had disappeared.

I saw something move out of the corner of my eye and turned to see one of our guides sitting on duffle bags in the back of the supply truck with a rifle resting across his lap.  He smiled and waved, then pointed at me and laid his face against the back of his folded hands in the universal gesture for sleep.  “Go back to bed,” he said without words. “I got this.”

“And the angels waited on him.”  There were angels with Jesus in the wilderness.  There always are.   Even in the valley of shadows, in the places with wild beasts, in the times and places of hunger and anxiety—even in the wilderness,  God’s messengers show up.  They come in all kinds of different ways and in unexpected forms.  And we don’t always recognize them.  But they come.

Do you recognize your angels?  Do you know them when they minister to you, when they show up bearing the love of God in some tangible form?  Do you recognize them when they remind you that you are God’s beloved child and that you are not alone in the time of testing, in the night full of wild beasts? 

Throughout our journey of Lent and beyond, may we walk with Christ.  May these 40 days remind us of what it means to be a new creation.  May we realize that God is also present in the wilderness of our challenges—when the Adversary in whatever form opposes us, may we remember that we, too, have been filled with the Spirit and heard the voice that proclaims us beloved.  When we hear the sounds of wild things all around us, may we remember that they, too, are created by God and loved by God.  And when we need it most, may we be waited on by angels.

In Jesus’ name.

A Season of Fasting

One year when I was serving in the Church Relations Office at California Lutheran University we decided to put together a Lenten devotional that could be emailed in daily installments to students, faculty, staff, and patrons.  Most of the feedback was positive.  One student, however, wrote us a rather heated letter.  He was not only opposed to our Lenten devotional, he was opposed to Lent.  “There is nothing in the Bible about Lent,” he wrote.  “It is a thing made up by the church.  If it is not in the Bible, we should not do it.” 

I wrote back what I hope was a gentle letter explaining that the practice of setting aside a time for fasting and preparation before the celebration of Easter was, in fact, one of the earliest practices of the church.  I also explained that it was the Church that gathered and assembled the books into the sacred library we call the Bible, but that there was nothing like an official agreement on which books were included and which were excluded until the Council of Rome in 382 CE.  So, even though the individual books of the Bible might be older, I explained, the followers of Jesus have been practicing Lent longer than they’ve had a Bible.  

Today, Ash Wednesday, is the beginning of Lent.  There are 46 days between Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday, but the season of Lent is only 40 days.  That’s because the six Sundays are not included in the fasting of Lent.  They are, though, included in the liturgical observation of the season.  We don’t sing the Gloria or the Alleluia during Lent.  In some traditions, the Alleluia is symbolically buried in a casket under the altar during this season and is “resurrected” for the celebration of Easter.

We begin our observance of Lent by marking ourselves with ashes.  Ashes have been a symbol since ancient times of grief and sorrow.  They also serve as a sign  of humility, or of repentance.  On Ash Wednesday we stand humbly before God and remember that we are both sinful and mortal.  

In Genesis, when God is escorting Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden and into a life of difficulty, God says to them, “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” (3:19)

Later in Genesis when Abraham is bargaining with God and trying to keep God from destroying Sodom, Abraham says, “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes.” (18:27)  These are the words we quote as we mark ourselves with ashes.

Job, after his trials and tribulations, finally sees God’s majesty revealed and says, I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”

Jeremiah, when he’s calling the people of Judah to repent and warning them of the destruction that is coming upon them, cries out, O my poor people, put on sackcloth, and roll in ashes; make mourning as for an only child, most bitter lamentation: for suddenly the destroyer will come upon us.”

In the book of Daniel, when Daniel is preparing to ask God to intervene and show mercy for his people, he writes: “Then I turned to the Lord God, to seek an answer by prayer and supplication with fasting and sackcloth and ashes.”

Ashes continued to be used as a sign of contrition in the early church.  Tertullian (c. 160-225) included sackcloth and ashes in the rite of repentance.  Around the year 800, those who had committed serious sins were covered in sackcloth and sprinkled with ashes before they were allowed to receive Holy Communion at Easter.  Sometime around the year 1000, as Lent came to be viewed as a season of penance, the practice of strewing ashes on the head was extended to the entire congregation.

Ashes remind us that because we are mortal, our life, our strength and our help come from God.  They open the doorway into Lent,  a time when we reflect on the way of Jesus and follow his path and listen to him more closely.

Lent is a time when we renew our practice of spiritual disciplines, especially prayer and fasting. 

There are a variety of ways to fast.  The traditional practice of many has been to give up meat during this time.  It has been the practice of some to have two small meals during the day then break the fast after sunset.  Some people simply give up something they’re attached to for the 40 days:  chocolate, television, podcasts, Facebook.  You can fast from anything that’s a daily part of your life.  The idea is to set that thing aside and give its space to Christ.  For instance, if you’re giving up lunch for the 40 days, then during that lunch hour you can spend time in prayer or meditation.  

On Sundays and Feast Days we get a break from fasting.  So if you’re giving up red meat for Lent, you can still have a bite of corned beef on the Feast of St. Patrick!

This time of fasting and preparation before Easter may have originated in the preparation for baptism.  The Didcache, a Syrian manual of church practice that dates to about the year 100, instructs that both those who are being baptized and those who are baptizing should fast for one or two days before the baptism.

At some point early on baptisms became tied to Easter.  Lent, then, became a time to prepare for baptism.  The practice of this, though, was far from uniform.  In Alexandria, Athanasius required his catechumens to prepare for 40 days, studying for 3 hours each day.  In other places, though, the preparation might be as little as a a week. 

At the Council of Nicaea in 325, in addition to establishing the doctrine of the Trinity, several important matters of church order and practice were standardized.  One of the things that was decided was how the date of Easter should be determined.  While they were at it, the bishops also agreed that Lent should be 40 days leading up to Easter.  

They didn’t call it Lent, by the way.  That’s our English word from the Old English word Lencten,  for Spring.  The Eastern bishops called it Tessarakosti and the Western bishops called it Quadragesima.  Both mean 40 days.

So why 40 days?

Though the Bible as such had not been assembled yet, the bishops at Nicaea were very familiar with the texts that would eventually be included in it.  They knew that the number 40 in these sacred texts represented a period of testing, trial, judgment, or probation.  In particular they were mindful of Jesus being tested in the wilderness for 40 days at the beginning of his ministry.

The number 40 occurs 146 times in the scriptures.  Moses lived 40 years in Egypt and 40 years in Midian before God called him to lead his people out of slavery.  He stayed on Mount Sinai with God and fasted for 40 days.  The Hebrew people wandered for 40 years in the wilderness before reaching the Promised Land.

Elijah spent 40 days and 40 nights walking to Mount Horeb.  Jonah’s prophecy to Nineveh gave them 40 days to repent or be destroyed.

Forty days may seem like a long time to fast, but there was also a practical reason for it.  In the days before refrigeration and food preservation, and in times when it wasn’t easy or inexpensive to ship food from other places, this would be the time of year when supplies of some foods, especially grains, vegetables and fruits would start to run low.  Fasting for an extended period could help to stretch these supplies until the new crops, especially the early grains, began to produce.

So are you planning to take up a spiritual discipline during Lent?  Are you thinking about praying more?  Meditating more?  Giving more?  Reading a devotional?   Here’s a suggestion:  Practice the discipline of kindness.  Be kind.  Practice having a generous spirit.  

Are you thinking of fasting?  It’s a worthwhile discipline and you can learn a lot about yourself by doing it.  But if giving up chocolate or television or meat or anything like that seems like it might be too much of a challenge, let me pass along this list of Suggestions for Fasting During Lent from Pope Francis:

Fast from hurting words and say kind words.

Fast from sadness and be filled with gratitude.

Fast from anger and be filled with patience.

Fast from pessimism and be filled with hope.

Fast from worries and have trust in God.

Fast from complaints and contemplate simplicity.

Fast from pressures and be prayerful.

Fast from bitterness and fill your heart with joy.

Fast from selfishness and be compassionate to others.

Fast from grudges and be reconciled.

Fast from words and be silent so you can listen.

This is a good time to listen.  

Listen to the message of the ashes.  The message of our mortality doesn’t have to be bad news.  God has breathed life into dust and ashes.  

Listen to our history.  We are part of a very long story that is still unfolding.  

Listen to Jesus.  He has called us to renew the world…and to be renewed ourselves.

The Light Side of Lent

“Every desirable and beneficial gift comes out of heaven. The gifts are rivers of light cascading down from the Father of Light. There is nothing deceitful in God, nothing two-faced, nothing fickle.” -James 1.17 (The Message)

Lent came early for me this year, its deep, contemplative shadow absorbing some of the shine of Christmas, Epiphany and Transfiguration, not dimming those shining feasts, exactly, but certainly making them stand out in starker contrast so that I could examine more of their details, looking past the sheer brightness of the revealed Christ to see the very human Jesus who is often overshadowed by all that incandescent divinity, obscured under the heaviness of all that light. You have to look through some pretty dark lenses and filters if you’re going to see what’s happening on the surface of the sun.

What happened was this: on the 5th day of Christmas I learned that in a deep and dark precinct of my body, a place where, literally, the sun don’t shine, a gang of cells had become rebellious, mutating and multiplying according to their own whim instead of according to their ordained function. In other words, cancer. If it had its own way, this gang of cells would take over everything, never realizing that in doing so they would destroy themselves by contaminating and collapsing the little universe in which they live and move and have their being, namely me.

Ah, but even in the valley of the shadow there are rivers of light cascading down from the Father of Light; even the cross has to stand in the light to throw a shadow. I am blessed to live in a time when there is a potent tool to suppress the cellular rebellion inside me. And get this… that tool is—are you ready?—light! Light is quite literally saving my life. In the 2nd week of Epiphany I began my own little Lent. Every day for 40 days (really, 40 days!) I go to a clinic and lie down on a table under a linear accelerator which bombards me with a stream of photons. Photons. Particles of light! It works like this: the rebellious cells can’t stand the photons, the light. They wither and die. But the healthy cells adapt. “And this is the judgment,” says John 3:19, “that the light has come into the world but some love darkness because they are up to no good.”

Oh, the metaphors! Oh, the analogies! One could riff on all the cancerous business of contemporary culture or personal failings for all 40 days of Lent and still barely scratch the surface. But let’s not. Yes, there are devils and beasts in the dark hollows of our personal wildernesses, but there are also angels. See Mark 1:13 if you don’t believe me.

So here is Lent–forty days to shine a little light on what ails you. Forty days to shine some light into the darkness of your duffle and see if anything slithers away. Forty days to lay out your laundry in the sunshine and maybe dispose of some of those old attitudes and ideas that never did fit quite right on a child of God. Here is Lent—a good gift of a season full of shadows, but shadows that testify to the presence and power of the Light.

Note:  My 40 sessions of radiation therapy will be complete on Tuesday, March 17, the Feast of St. Patrick.