Lent 1

Mark 1:9-15

©Marian Free

In the name of God whose love is our beginning and our end. Amen.

I wonder, if we only had Mark’s account of Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness would our practice of Lent any different? Mark simply tells us: “The Spirit immediately drove him out (literally cast him out) into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”  There is no mention here of fasting, no reference to Jesus being famished and no elaboration of the temptations. It is Matthew and Luke who fill out the story with details of three specific temptations and of Jesus being hungry.  Interestingly – in their accounts there is no record of wild animals and no reference to the angels ministering to Jesus.

We know from the gospels that fasting was a spiritual practice among the Pharisees in the time of Jesus, but in Mark’s gospel there is no evidence that Jesus himself fasts. In fact, Jesus is asked why his disciples do not fast when the disciples of John the Baptist and the Pharisees fast (Mark 2:18). Jesus may or may not have fasted.

The earliest Christians did fast. Possibly following the tradition of the Pharisees, the first believers fasted on a weekly basis though – as the first century document the Didache makes clear – they were to distinguish themselves from the hypocrites – presumably the Pharisees. In that document, we read that the community should not fast on the days that the hypocrites fast (the second and fifth days of the week,) but on the fourth day and on the day of preparation (Friday). That fasting was an accepted spiritual discipline among Christians by the second century is recorded in a letter written by Irenaeus bemoaning the fact that there was no common practice and that the discipline varied from one day of fasting to as many as 40 days.

Fasting for the forty days before Easter can be traced to the Council of Nicea in 325 CE which formalised the custom – possibly as a way to prepare for baptism. It took much longer for there to be a common practice throughout Christendom. Some places allowed the Lenten fast to be broken on Sundays, others not. Some only fasted from Monday to Friday, meaning that the 40 day fast took place over 8 weeks. In general, meat, fish and dairy were forbidden, as was consuming food before 3pm. During the reign of Pope Gregory the Great, the season of Lent was regularised. It was to begin 46 days before Lent, with a ceremony of ash. Sundays were excluded. During the 9th century the strictures were relaxed somewhat and by the 1800’s the emphasis on one meal a day was relaxed. Traditions and practices continue to evolve, but we maintain the practice established in the seventh century – Ash Wednesday to Easter Day, excluding Sundays.

To return to where I began, if we only had Mark’s gospel I wonder if it would make a difference to our Lenten observance?

It seems to me that there are four parts to Jesus’ experience as reported by Mark. First, we are told that Jesus was cast out, or thrown out into the wilderness. In other words, Jesus allowed himself to be tossed about by the Spirit. He didn’t fight the Spirit’s leading, no matter how uncomfortable it made him, or how unpleasant it seemed. Second, in the wilderness Jesus was tempted by Satan. Mark doesn’t elaborate on this point, but his gospel depicts a power play between Satan and God. Jesus now (and throughout his ministry) resists the temptation to rely on anything and anyone but God.

Third, and this is perhaps the most difficult to make sense of – Jesus was with the wild animals. There is no suggestion that Jesus is in any kind of danger here so perhaps Mark means us to understand that in the wilderness Jesus identified himself wholly with all of God’s creation – the creation with whom God has made a covenant (as the reading from Genesis tells us (Gen 9:8-10)).[1]

Finally, Mark tells us that Jesus was ministered to by the angels. Out there in wilderness Jesus allowed God’s representatives to care for him. He didn’t need to assert his independence and he didn’t need to prove how strong-willed he was because he knew that God would take care of everything.

What might this reading of Mark mean for us and for our observance of the 40 days before Easter?

In the first instance, we might allow Mark’s account re-frame the way that we see the season. Instead of seeing Lent as a time of penance and self-sacrifice, we might grasp opportunity to allow ourselves to be led by (tossed about by) the Spirit – as terrifying as that might be.

In a world which places a premium on independence and self-reliance, we could learn to serve not ourselves (Satan), but God. 

In a world in which we have used the earth for our benefit and for which we are now paying the price, we might take a page out of Jesus’ experience in the wilderness and understand that we are part of, not apart from all creation, that working with and not against creation will be better for us and lead to the healing of the world. 

And finally, and for some of us the most difficult, we might use these 40 days to truly allow ourselves to trust in God’s unbounding love for us, accept that we are worthy of that love and in so doing permit the angels themselves to care for us.

Mark’s account of Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness frees us to let go of any striving to be good, encourages us to abandon our attempts to punish ourselves for our shortcomings and allows us to stop using self-denial to prove how strong or how disciplined we are. It enables us to understand that Lent is less about what we do for God, and more about what we let God do to and with us.

Our Lenten observances are based on the scriptures and moulded by centuries of tradition – that doesn’t prevent us from looking at it anew and seeing what Mark has to teach us.

This Lent – Are we willing for the Spirit to toss us about? Can we let go our need to rely on ourselves? Do we understand that we are integrally related with all creation? And, can we accept that we are entirely worthy of God’s love?

[1] This is the suggestion of Dr Margaret Wesley who draws on today’s reading from Genesis to the effect that God has made a covenant with all creation.