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First Sunday of Lent

15 February 2018


Genesis 9.8-17; Psalm 25.1-9; 1 Peter 3.18-end; Mark 1.9-15


MARK often raises readers’ expectations, only to postpone their fulfilment. As Ched Myers observes, this is one of the ways in which he holds together the glory and the humility of Christ (Binding the Strong Man: A political reading of Mark’s story of Jesus).

Mark builds up an atmosphere of expectation at the start of his Gospel. Yet he introduces Jesus to us in a way that emphasises Jesus’s humility. In place of a genealogy, we are reminded of his obscure home town. We then encounter Jesus submitting to his baptism by John, along with the rest of the crowd.

Suddenly, however, the mood is transformed. The heavens are “torn apart”, the Spirit descends “like a dove”, and a voice declares Jesus to be God’s Son. The lectionary pairs this passage with the story of the Flood. According to St Gregory Thaumaturgus, by sending the Spirit upon Jesus in the form of a dove, the Father is “pointing him out right there as the new Noah, even the maker of Noah, and the good pilot of the nature which is in shipwreck” (Fourth Homily, On the Holy Theophany).

The glory of the new Noah is greater than the old. The first Noah’s righteousness preserved his own life. By contrast, the righteousness of this new Noah leads to his death, that a “shipwrecked” world might be “piloted” to resurrection life. In the words of our epistle, the ark that saved a few prefigures the baptism now offered to all (1 Peter 3.21).

Once again, Mark postpones the fulfilment of our expectations. After descending upon Jesus in the form of a dove, the Spirit “immediately” drives him into the wilderness. Jesus’s time of trial echoes that of all humanity. It is after God has worked through us most powerfully that we tend to be most vulnerable to pride. That will be the case at the very centre of this Gospel, when Peter confesses Jesus as Messiah and is almost immediately rebuked for resisting his teaching about the Cross (Mark 8.27f).

Times of retreat and renunciation are essential if we are to respond to the call of God’s grace, and not be ruled by our ego and pride. The Australian pastor Sarah Bachelard warns that much of our Christian action is in fact “functionally atheist”. While we may take actions in pursuit of laudable goals, these are often motivated by a proud desire for self-justification rather than expressing our obedience to the God who has already justified us in Christ. It is the uncomfortable silence of the desert which opens up a space for God to confront the divided state of our hearts.

The Lenten fast can itself become an exercise in self-justification. This is why the Orthodox begin their preparations for Lent with a Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee, to recall worshippers to the purpose of their self-denial. Our aim in Lent should not be to justify ourselves before God by our acts of penance, but, rather, through those acts to develop a genuinely penitential heart. Such a heart knows itself to depend entirely on the mercy of the Lord. It can, therefore, respond to his will with joyful obedience.

For Jesus, as for us, retreating to the wilderness is not a pious evasion of the challenges of daily life, but an essential preparation for those struggles. As Myers notes, the “wild beasts” of verse 13 refer back to the Prophets, who used this image to refer to the oppressive leaders of their time (cf. Daniel 7).

With the arrest of John, Mark’s narrative turns to the unjust rulers of Jesus’s day. There is an echo here of our Ash Wednesday readings: as they remind us, the fast that God chooses has a political dimension — not only feeding the hungry and housing the homeless, but breaking the yoke that oppresses them (Isaiah 58.6,7).

The interior ascesis of Lent is essential to this work. The inner and the outer struggles are deeply intertwined. If our action is motivated by self-justification and pride, it will not lead to any genuine transformation; instead, it will reproduce the very faults that it seeks to challenge. We can become faithful heralds of God’s Kingdom only if we first allow him into our hearts, to confront our vanities and heal us of our sin.

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