St. Mark and Wild Beasts

1516_Vittore_Carpacci,_The_Lion_of_St_Mark_(detail)_Tempera_on_canvas,_Palazzo_Ducale,_Venice

Readings for the Feast Day of St. Mark the Evangelist

Isaiah 52:7-10

Psalm 2:7-10

Ephesians 4:7-8, 11-16

Mark 1:1-15

This sermon was preached at All Saints Chapel at Church Divinity School of the Pacific on April 28, 2014

“He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts”

Probably because my name is Daniel, I have always loved lions: those in the Bible, those in the wild and that not-so-safe but good one in the land of Narnia. One reason why I love today’s saint so much is because of his association with the lion. Ancient commentators associate the voice of one crying out in the wilderness with the blood-curdling roar of a lion. And immediately after Jesus is affirmed by God in his baptism, the Spirit sends him into the wilderness to wrestle with Satan and to be with wild beasts.

St Mark followed in the footsteps of the roaring Nazarite (John the Baptist) and the wandering Nazarene (Jesus) not only by achieving martyrdom under the sword of Rome, but also by following the Spirit’s lead into the treacherous wilderness. There is a story that, while in the wilderness, Mark encountered a hungry and ferocious lion, ready to pounce on his human flesh. But like the Prophet Daniel before him, Mark trusted in the Lord and escaped unscathed.

Between escaping death by lion and meeting death by Rome, St. Mark, according to tradition, founded the Coptic Christian Church, a community of Christians in Egypt that still thrives today. It is to this community that we owe the powerful witnesses of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, who also followed the Spirit’s lead into the wilderness to wrestle with Satan and to be with wild beasts.

The great Abba Antony of Egypt said, “Obedience with abstinence gives people power over wild beasts.” And saints throughout the history of Christian spirituality have lived in harmony with a panoply of wild animals: St. Columbanus shared a cave with a wild bear; sea otters kept St. Cuthbert’s feet warm; St. Godric welcomed a hunted stag into his home; St. Francis made a pact with the violent wolf of Gubbio; and St. Seraphim took a bear as his pet and friend. Sister Benedicta Ward points out this miraculous concord between saint and beast was a return to paradise, to the Garden of Eden where humanity and all animals enjoyed each other’s company and friendship. So it is no wonder that the Spirit led Jesus, immediately after his baptism, into the wilderness to be with the wild beasts in order to launch his mission to bring heaven to earth, to bring back the Garden. And part of taming the wild beasts in the wilderness involves, as Jesus shows us, taming the wild beasts within ourselves and wrestling with our own inner demons and devils. As Peter says, “The devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). And the desert fathers remind us of the vicious beasts that roam within us by calling our anger the lion and our fornication the bear. And they call us to tame our desires in the same way that lions tame wild beasts that encroach upon their territory and pride. Abba Hyperechius said, “As the lion is terrible to wild asses, so is the experienced monk to desires.” The desert tradition calls us to be a powerful lion like John the Baptist and the Lion of Judah in order to tame the wild lions within, to persevere in resisting in evil.

And how do we do this? How do we traverse the treacherous wilderness and tame the wild beasts of the world outside and within our own hearts? Our baptismal covenant calls us to persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever, we fall into sin, to repent and return to the Lord. One of my favorite sayings from the desert tradition is from Abba Sisoes, who was asked “What shall I do, abba, for I have fallen?” The old man said to him, “Get up again.” The brother said, “I have got up again, but I have fallen again.” The abba said, “Get up again and again.”

The lion associated with St. Mark is sometimes pictured above water, reminding us that our strength and perseverance in resisting evil are deeply rooted in and empowered by our baptism, which, like the baptism of Jesus, calls us into the wilderness to live in harmony with the beasts and to restore the Garden of Eden and to bring God’s Reign on earth.

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