sabato 17 febbraio 2018

«Erat cum bestiis, et angeli ministrabant illi»

During Lent the arrangement of readings changes. While, during Ordinary Time, the first reading matches the gospel, in Lent it is independent from it and proposes the main events of the history of salvation. The second reading, which in Ordinary Time goes on its own, during Lent highlights some points either from the first reading or from the gospel.

In today’s first reading we find a reference to the flood. It is a reminder for us that the history of humanity is a history of sin. Sin deserves punishment; but, at the same time, it leads God to save a little remnant, with which he establishes a covenant. The second reading is a Christian reinterpretation of the flood: Saint Peter sees in it a foreshadowing of Baptism. Let us not forget that Lent is, for catechumens, a period of preparation for Baptism, and for us a period of preparation for the renewal of our baptismal promises. It is interesting to notice that, while in the Genesis water was an instrument of destruction and the means of salvation was the ark, according to Peter, Noah and his companions “were saved through water.” Water becomes the instrument through which we are saved. Exactly what happens in Baptism.

The gospel of the first Sunday of Lent is traditionally about the temptation of Jesus. The reason is quite clear: Lent tries to imitate the experience of Jesus in the desert. Unlike Matthew and Luke, who linger over the individual temptations, Mark is very concise: he gets off with two verses. He just tells us that Jesus went to the desert; he remained there for forty days, and was temped by the devil. Mark does not tell us even that, during that period, Jesus fasted. Since, when we read the account of the temptation, we usually focus on each temptation, this can be the occasion for dwelling upon some details often neglected. 

First of all, Mark tells us that Jesus was driven into the desert by the Spirit—the same Spirit who had descended upon him during his baptism at the Jordan. Second, Jesus remains in the desert for forty days—like Moses, who remained for forty days on Mount Sinai, and Elijah, who took forty days through the desert to reach the same mountain. Third, unlike the other evangelists, according to whom Jesus was tempted at the end of the forty days, in Mark it would seem that Jesus was tempted during the whole duration of his stay in the desert. Fourth, in the desert Jesus was not alone. Of course, there was the devil, who tempted him; but Mark adds an interesting detail, “He was among wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him” (Erat cum bestiis, et angeli ministrabant illi). The scholars explain this detail as follows, “The presence of wild beasts may indicate the horror and danger of the desert regarded as the abode of demons or may reflect the paradise motif of harmony among all creatures. The presence of ministering angels to sustain Jesus recalls the angel who guided the Israelites in the desert in the first Exodus and the angel who supplied nourishment to Elijah in the wilderness. The combined forces of good and evil were present to Jesus in the desert” (NAB).

Let us not forget that Jesus, the Son of God made man, by going into the desert, wants to share in the human experience of temptation, especially the temptation of Adam in Paradise and of Israel in the forty years spent in the desert. With the only difference that, unlike them, Jesus does not give in to temptation. But, at least, he knows what it means, for us, to be tempted. The letter to the Hebrews says, “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin” (4:15), “Because he himself was tested through what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested” (2:18).