Samuel Clemons (“Mark Twain”) wrote in his autobiography words akin to the Gospel of Mark’s briefest description of Jesus’s 40 days and nights in the wilderness:
“With the going down of the sun my faith failed and the clammy fears gathered about my heart. Those were awful nights, nights of despair, nights charged with the bitterness of death. In my age as in my youth, night brings me many a deep remorse.
None of us is ever quite sane in the night. Our faith fails. The clammy fears gather in our hearts. Despair descends. It is into this primitive night of the soul that Jesus enters when Mark describes Jesus’s wilderness temptation with one line:
“He was with the wild beasts, and angels ministered to him.”
In Mark’s Gospel there is none of the later Gospel’s three temptations. Jesus simply enters that frightening solitude Gerard Manley Hopkins described as a miserable soul “gnawing and feeding on its own miserable self.”
The wild beasts of Mark and of the Hebrew Scripture are symbols representing the violence and arrogance of nations and empires: the lion that threatened David’s sheep; the lion with wings and a bear gnawing insanely on its own ribs in Daniel’s dream; a leopard and a dragon with great iron teeth destroying everything in its way. The beasts of Daniel and the Hebrew Scripture symbolize the deepest threats, threats to human wellbeing and existence itself. In Daniel’s dream, when the Ancient of Days takes his judgment seat and gathers the nations (wild beasts), they are as nothing before him, but “of his kingdom there shall be no end.”
Like Samuel Clemons, with the going down of the sun [our] faith fails and the clammy fears gather about my heart.
In his book Man Before Chaos Dutch philosopher-theologian Willem Zuurdeeg argues that all philosophy and religion is born in a cry. Whether the great philosophies of Plato or Aristotle or Hegel, whether Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, Christianity or what we arrogantly describe as ‘primitive’ religions; whether the political philosophy of Western democracy or Islamic theocracy or one or another economic theory – capitalist, socialist, communist, or communitarian – all philosophy and religion is born in a cry for help. It is the primal cry of human vulnerability, our contingency, our finitude, our mortality. It is the cry for order, protection and meaning in the face of the chaos without and within.
Separated from all social structure and from all the answers that express or muffle the cry, removed from civilization and all distraction – no computers, no video games, no reading material, no play stations, no TV, no artificial noise, nothing unreal to distract him – in the wilderness of time, “he was with the wild beasts.”
“He was with the wild beasts” is a kind of cliff notes for Jesus’ entire life and ministry. He would dwell among the wild beasts – the unruly principalities and powers that defy the ways of justice, love and peace. He lived and died among the wild beasts that mocked him at his trial – “Hail, King of the Jews!” – stripped him of his clothing, plaited a crown of thorns believing they had seen the end of him. But after the beasts of empire had torn him to shreds, he become for us the crucified-risen King whose love would tame us all.
There are times for each of us when the beasts are all too real, moments when faith falters, nights in the darkness when despair gnaws and paws at us, and hope has all but disappeared.
A young woman sits in the Atlanta airport. She is returning home from a year of study abroad. All flights have been delayed because of a storm. She is anxiously awaiting the final leg of her journey home. But home as she had known it no longer exits. Her mother and father have separated. Her father has entered treatment for alcoholism. She has entered a wilderness not of her own choosing. The beasts are tearing her apart. Her ordered universe has fallen apart.
She goes to the smoking lounge to catch a smoke. A stranger, her father’s age, sits down. He jolts her out of her fog. “Do you have the time?” he asks. As strangers are sometimes wont to do, they begin to talk. Unaware of her circumstances, he tells her that he is a recovering alcoholic, a former heavy drinker whose drinking was destroying his marriage until his wife became pregnant. The impending birth of his daughter snapped him into treatment and sobriety. “I thought I was going to die,” he says, “but it was the beginning of a resurrection, a whole new life.”
The young woman begins to feel a burden lifting. The stranger finishes his cigarette and disappears. She never gets his name.
The loudspeaker announces her flight’s departure. She boards her flight, and as the plane rises through the clouds, she finds herself momentarily sandwiched between two sets of clouds – one below, one above – and the space between is filled with rainbow light, a world whose grandeur and grace exceed all reasons for despair. She is strangely calm in the face of what lies ahead. A sense of peace descends. She is sure that the man has been given to her as a gift. She has been with the wild beasts. An angel has ministered to her.
During these 40 days and nights of Lent we live more consciously with the wild beasts, praying that the angels of our better nature will minister to us in the wilderness of time, dreaming with Daniel and Jesus of the Ancient of Days taking his judgment seat and gathering the nations. They are as nothing before him, but of his kingdom there shall be no end.
- Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Feb. 14, 2016.