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From The Ark Number 185 Summer 2000:

And was with the wild beasts (Mark 1:13)

During Mass on the First Sunday of Lent this year, Dominican theologian Fr Fergus Kerr preached this homily at Blackfriars in Oxford.

By Fergus Kerr OP

Jesus was in the wilderness 40 days tempted by Satan, St Mark tells us, as of course St Matthew and St Luke also do. Unlike them, however, St Mark doesn’t give us the familiar story of how Jesus was tempted three times and what each of the three temptations was; setting out what the devil’s idea of how to be God would be, testing us to see how far we’d be tempted by this perverted theology. Rather, St Mark, and in this, too, unlike St Matthew and St Luke, gives us this reference to how, when he was being tempted in the wilderness, Jesus was ‘with the wild beasts’ as well as being ‘ministered to by the angels’. For St Mark, Christ in the wilderness, being tempted by the devil, is effectively Adam back in the garden of Eden.

This is one of the very few references to animals anywhere in the New Testament and I think one of the three occasions in St Mark’s Gospel where Jesus is portrayed as having anything to do with animals: when the legion of demons in the naked man who lived in the graveyard are relocated in the herd of Gadarene swine, ch. 5, and when he comes riding into Jerusalem on a colt, ch. 11 – one friendly and one rather negative attitude to animals.

This reference to Jesus’s being with the wild beasts in today’s Gospel has often been understood to mean that he was surrounded by the wild beasts, threatened by them; sometimes, even, that what the text means is that the devil appeared in the shape of the wild beasts as if animals were somehow an appropriate vehicle for displays of devilish activity.

Actually there is no reason, no grammatical reason, for taking this being ‘with’ the wild beasts any differently from Jesus’s being ‘with’ the disciples as in ch. 3:14 and elsewhere — a close and intimate relationship, then. It doesn’t seem the animals are hostile; on the contrary it seems much more likely that this little detail, that only St Mark gives us, is meant to send us back to various texts — such as, for example, Hosea 2:18, where God is portrayed as rescuing his people from idolatry and bringing them into the wilderness and giving them vineyards and so on — ‘in that day I will make a covenant for them with the beasts of the field and with the fowls of heaven and with the creeping things of the ground’. Or Isaiah 11, where the ‘wolf shall dwell with the lamb and the leopard lie down with the kid, the calf and the young lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them’ — that well known passage. In other words: the picture would be that out there, in his isolation from all other human beings, right out in his own in the desert, having his first great struggle with all that is temptingly demonic, Jesus is being supported not just by angels but also by wild animals — at this new start, this re-creation, of humanity, which is what St Mark’s story is going to be all about, here we have Jesus being sketched as Adam, the original human being, back in harmony with the creatures of the animal kingdom.

Noah’s ark and the cosmic covenant

Which is surely what we are being advised to consider by the choice of the first reading; extracted from the three chapters in the Book of Genesis in which we have the story of Noah’s ark and the great flood, certainly the story of a new start; the earth was corrupt and full of violence (you remember), so the Lord God drowned everyone and destroyed everything except for Noah and his family — but also a whole ark full of animals, two by two of every kind, locked up together for 40 days as it happens, presumably living in some kind of harmony; and at the climax God establishes a covenant with Noah and with his family and explicitly with every living creature, birds, cattle, every beast of the earth, ch. 9:10 — so, by giving us this first reading, the Church is suggesting a connection between St Mark’s picture of Jesus’s being with the wild beasts in the wilderness at the very outset of his mission, and the story in the Book of Genesis of the covenant God made with the whole of the animal kingdom and not just with Noah.

One of Noah’s descendants would be Abraham, and Abraham is our father in faith; but long before the covenant with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses there was this even more ancient and far more universal covenant that God made with Noah and the whole of creation (the Noachic convenant, as it is now called by the scholars), the cosmic covenant (as it is now sometimes called), justice peace and the integrity of creation (as the slogan goes), — an aspect of the Incarnation and Redemption and Resurrection very largely ignored and even distorted in the Western Church.

Hildegard of Bingen

It was, at least until you get to St Hildegard of Bingen, the German Benedictine nun who flourished in the first half of the 12th century. She left enough (in extremely complicated Latin!) to fill one entire volume of Migne’s Latin Patrology, volume 197, available since the 1850s but really only being read in recent years. She is one of the very rare theologians and mystics who have ever shown much real sense of the cosmic covenant, the salvation of creation as a whole — St Francis of Assisi was born a year or two after Hildegard died, and of course there is his famous Canticle of the Sun, laudes creaturarum, supposed to have been composed in a garden in Assisi in 1225.

Understanding creation

But it is well into the twentieth century before we find much evidence of this Christian understanding of the creation of the world including the animals.

You get it in some modem works of art; I’ve seen reproductions of what looks like a wonderful set of eight paintings by Stanley Spencer, now in the art gallery in Perth Western Australia — ‘Christ in the wilderness’. In one of them, for instance, Jesus is pictured sitting in a vast empty desert landscape with a tiny scorpion cupped in his hands, huge workman’s hands, obviously contemplating the baby scorpion with total wonder.

There is also a poem by Robert Graves : In the wilderness it is called, written in the summer of 1914 when Graves was 19. The poem portrays Christ in the desert seeking out all the most sinister and repulsive animals:

‘soft words of grace he spoke
to lost desert-folk!
that listened wondering.
The bittern, the lonely she-pelican,
the basilisk, great bats on leathern wings’ — and so on.

And finally the goat, the scape-goat, the goat driven out into the wilderness bearing away the sins of the people, (Leviticus 16:20): ‘Gaunt ribs / poor innocent / bleeding foot, burning throat / the guileless young scapegoat / for forty nights and days / followed in Jesus’s ways / sure guard behind him kept / tears like a lover wept’ — I mean not the greatest poem you’ve ever read, nor the finest Robert Graves ever composed, though I think not a bad effort by a 19 year-old in the summer of 1914 or at any other time.

Two highly imaginative developments, rewritings, extensions, of St Mark’s extremely laconic phrase — Stanley Spencer’s Christ in the wilderness contemplating the tiny animal he has just made; Robert Graves’s Jesus in the wilderness shadowed by, protected by, wept over by — the goat banished into the desert, bleeding and dying. Very powerful images.

So there’s a great deal wrong with our modern Christian culture I have no doubt; and probably we are motivated in all this worry we have about the future of the planet by sheer fear at what the human race has done to this earth. But one way in which Christian sensibility has been opened up in recent years is surely this rediscovery of the story of the Lord God’s covenant with Noah, the cosmic covenant (the title of a wonderful book by the Jesuit scholar, Robert Murray). There’s a new belated sense of the responsibility we human beings have for the whole of created life — a sense of wonder — that is being marked by our Scripture readings this evening , this first Sunday of Lent, this opening of our annual return to the beginning of our faith, our annual rediscovery of our faith in the risen Lord Jesus. Before he ever preached, before he called the first disciples, before he taught them in the synagogue at Capernaum and freed the man with the unclean spirit, Jesus was in the wilderness for 40 days, tempted by Satan, and he was with the wild beasts and the angels ministered to him — back in paradise, in the garden of Eden, in the desert, defeating Satan this time round, ministered to by the angels — and with the wild beasts for company.

Return to The Ark No. 185

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Deborah Jones at The Catholic Study Circle for Animal Welfare

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