In the Scriptures, even the strangest of details matter. And in Mark’s Gospel, we hear one such detail about Jesus’ time in the desert: “He was among wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him” (Mk 1:13).
For Israel, the desert is both the trysting place with God as well as a place of chaos. In the Book of Exodus, God sojourns with Israel in the desert, forming them in the rudiments of love. Yet, the desert is also a harsh place, a space of trial and temptation. Jesus enters into this desert of love and temptation alike.
The presence of wild beasts should bring us back to the Garden of Eden in the book of Genesis. There, all the creatures were created to dwell in harmony with Adam and Eve. The first sin of our forebears introduced a radical disharmony in creation, an enmity between the beasts of the earth and humankind.
Jesus enters into the harshness of this desert space. But Mark does not address some sort of violent conflict between our Lord and the wild beasts of the desert. Instead, Jesus dwells with the violent beasts in perfect harmony.
Our Lord has entered into the desert of desolation, into the drought of disharmony. Yet, the Savior of the world has introduced consolation. The Word made flesh has begun the reign of salvation that will restore creation to its original destiny.
This entrance into the desert, with Our Lord, is central to the meaning of Lent. Lent is not a time to enter into some self-improvement program where men and women become the “best version” of themselves. It is not an occasion for us to set up a series of practices that we master through sheer force of effort.
Instead, we enter into the desert of Lent with Our Lord because we hope to return to the original harmony of creation where there are no floods, no destruction, no enmity between God and humanity.
In reality, we already dwell in this space. As 1 Peter makes clear, what Christ has accomplished on the cross has forever changed the universe: “Christ also suffered for sins once, the righteous for the sake of the unrighteous, that he might lead you to God” (3:18).
In Lent, we don’t replicate the efficaciousness of Christ’s passion for a new generation. We are not saviors of ourselves or anyone else for that matter.
The practices of Lent are intended to restore us to the proper posture of gratitude toward God, of solidarity with our neighbor.
What Our Lord accomplished, he accomplished once and forever. Death has been destroyed through the manifestation of God’s kingdom on the cross. Love has won.
But we are creatures prone to forgetfulness. During Lent, we create a space in our lives to remember the essentials of the new creation.
We fast not because food, drink or technology is evil. Rather, we fast so that we may learn to desire God and God most of all. For if we desire God, then everything else is in harmony.
We pray because we are creatures made in the image and likeness of God. We are not made for consumption, for grasping or for hatred. We are complete in worship alone.
Lastly, we give alms because everything in creation is not ours but God’s. When we hold on to material objects, refusing to share everything with those in need, we ourselves become like wild beasts whose insatiable appetites cannot be quenched.
So, enter into the desert with Our Lord. You’ll find the wild beasts of sin.
But, you may discover the harmony of God’s kingdom.
Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D., is the managing director of the McGrath Institute for Church Life.