This reflection has its origin in a domestic scene – it is at the deanery and Christine, my wife, is painting, the canvas is on the easel and she is experimenting with an abstract to mark the start of Lent. Experience has taught me to keep out of her way while she is occupied like this but I sneak a peep – I don’t understand what she is doing but I recognise the form of the cross and sense the energy that swirls about it. I venture a comment –‘I like the energy about the cross’ –“the cosmic powers she says.” The cosmic powers – yes!
So it has arrived, this first Sunday in Lent. We look toward an apprehension of the cosmic powers and I begin with a question: how might we imagine the end of the world? What we call The Apocalypse? It is a question very relevant today: there are many films that explore it in terms of science fiction, climate change, nuclear war as our fragile foothold in life and on this planet is realised. It is a thought that haunts the imagination.
Our Genesis reading revisits the biblical account of such an apocalypse – a horrific flood that swept away all life except for that retained in the ark. The flood narrative faces a basic incongruity in human life. The fracture between creator and creation is the premise and agenda of the flood story. On the one hand God has called the world into being to be his faithful covenant partner. But, on the other hand, it has not happened that way – the creation proves resistant to the purposes of God – by whom and for whom it exists. A careful reading of the story reveals the hurt and anguish of God as judge and, despite everything, his commitment of redeeming love and faithfulness to the creation.
Now turn your attention to the rather difficult passage from the First letter of Peter: it is a fine passage for the start of Lent. It resounds the dramatic highlights of the story of salvation: the cosmic powers inherent in the passion, resurrection, and exaltation of Christ that demonstrate God’s triumph over the powers of the universe. Peter claims the cosmic reach of that salvation extends back to the beginnings of humankind at the time of the flood. So now, as Christians use the time of fasting and penance during Lent to renew our lives, we should remember God’s grace that was given to us in baptism. Peter also reminds all believers that our hope extends beyond this life to reunion with the heavenly Lord, whom we do not yet see. The cosmic powers are close to us; acting in baptism; in the Eucharist to come; and near to us in every moment of our lives.
So in the gospel this morning we hear of Jesus baptised by John; this is the prologue to the gospel and we are told straightaway precisely who Jesus is: his identity and authority are made clear. It is more vivid in the Greek than in most English translations. “As he (Jesus) was coming up out of the water he saw the heavens in the process of being ripped apart.” The verb used is the same as for the temple curtain which, when Jesus died, was rent from top to bottom (15:38). In both cases what has been long sealed is suddenly flung open. In Mark, unlike Matthew and John, the vision and the voice are for Jesus alone. This is a secret epiphany – others must discover this truth by listening to what Jesus says and watching what he does.
Immediately after this great moment of revelation and affirmation for Jesus we find that the Spirit of God drives Jesus into the wilderness. This tells us something about God, Jesus and ourselves.
About God: God does not tempt (Satan does) but word tempt in Mark means to test. Reflection on this passage suggests that “God uses harsh means, including the very powers of hell, to accomplish redemptive purposes.”
About Jesus: “He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan.” The divine Son was not exempted from testing or struggle. Gregory the Great commented that “Jesus dwelt among beasts as a man; he was ministered to by angels, as God.” The human and divine natures are both present. In Mark Jesus’ single combat with Satan is the ordeal that validates Jesus as the Saviour.
About ourselves: the most obvious thing to be learned is that the onslaught of Satan is strongest just after the exhilaration of a moment of revelation.
Finally in this gospel, hear the words that Jesus proclaims as he begins his ministry: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’"
This is the point in the Gospel prologue where the gospel transitions to Jesus’ public ministry. "The Time is fulfilled" tells us:
(1) that the coming of Jesus fulfils God’s plan for the grand sweep of history;
(2) that John’s time is over and Jesus’ ministry begins;
(3) that now, as the good news in proclaimed, it is decision time; "the time is fulfilled." The call now is to believe. This is the urgency that pulses through the gospel and must in our proclamation. This is the call to us in Lent! The cosmic powers are present in this gospel and in our Eucharist this morning. "Repent and believe in the good news".