The Gospel I missed, of course, is the famous and classic narrative of the temptation of Jesus, proclaimed on the First Sunday of Lent for at least 500 years. The Tridentine Missal (in use prior to 1970) chose the narrative of St. Matthew for annual proclamation. The present day rites rotate Matthew, Mark, and Luke on the three year cycle, and this is the Markan year. Although we think of the “Temptation” as a prolonged narrative between Jesus and the devil, St. Mark’s account is actually all of two lines! Mark, as the earliest evangelist, probably has the closest description of the event, to which future evangelists added their particular theological interpretations.
And indeed, in looking at a survey of modern scholarship, there is agreement that the theology underlying Mark is quite basic, almost primitive, one might say. Each noun and verb in this tiny paragraph is selected with great care to convey this sense. The subject of verse 1:12 is not Jesus, but “the Spirit,” who of course has just affirmed Jesus in the previous paragraph after John’s baptism and now immediately (implied in the Greek verb) “sends” him into the desert. Francis Moloney’s commentary notes that until and including the desert experience, things “happen” to Jesus; a vocational formation is still in play.
The desert is one of the Bible’s richest theological symbols. Historically, the anguishing sojourns of Moses alone and later with the Israelite nation through the desert were benchmarks of Jewish religious identity, places where God is met and destinies changed. That all Gospel accounts of Jesus’ own desert experience occur after his passage through water (i.e., the Jordan River) suggests parallels with the Exodus. But the term “desert” goes beyond even this. By the time of Jesus’ ministry the desert was considered in Jewish apocalyptic literature as the site of the final showdown battle between the angels of God and those of Evil. It is no accident that John the Baptist did his preaching and baptizing in the desert, believing as he did that the terrible day was soon at hand.
Over all, the desert was seen, as one might expect, enemy territory for the human species. The author of Genesis 3 was describing the travails of desert farming, the famous curse in the banishment from the (watered) Garden of Eden. Its animal population was dangerous and fierce. Mark 1:13 calls the desert “a wasteland.” It was in these circumstances that Jesus spent the (historically symbolic) forty days. Again, in the passive voice, things happen to Jesus. He was “put to the test” by Satan, and wild beasts were with him, and angels waited on him.
The sequence of Satan, beasts, angels gives us the best understanding we will ever have of what Jesus actually experienced. One commentator describes Satan’s role in the Bible as a “prosecuting attorney.” This is certainly true with the Book of Job, where Satan is the “common sense” advocate that a God who permits suffering is really no god at all. That Jesus experienced internal questions about his suffering ahead and whether he ultimately wished to embrace a prophet’s fate would make sense. That in this harsh retreat Jesus made the consummate choice to embrace the Kingdom is also clear from the context. The phrase “with the wild beasts” rings of the Prophet Isaiah’s apocalyptic vision of the lion and the lamb, and the child and the cobra. Jesus, by his desert decision, has made things right, restored the harmony of the Garden of Eden. The presence of angels suggests who has the upper hand in the cosmic battle of good and evil.
It is no literary accident that in Mark 2 Jesus assumes the active voice in his life and ministry.