Thursday, February 21, 2013

Natural History

‘At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptised by John in the Jordan. As Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” At once the Spirit sent him out into the desert, and he was in the desert forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.’

The Gospel According to Mark, chapter 1 verses 9-13.

This coming Sunday, the second Sunday in Lent, the Gospel reading from the Common worship Lectionary is Luke 13:31-35, in which Jesus describes Herod as a fox and himself as a hen with chicks.

It is a rich juxtaposition of images. Foxes and hens both look to raise young, but present us with contrasting means:

the fox kills to feed its family, preying on a more vulnerable life; whereas the hen is dependent on the hand of a human to scatter corn (intentionally or carelessly)

despite being a predator, the fox is not a brave animal, and scavenges what it can; whereas the hen, despite being defenceless, is brave enough to sacrifice her own life for the survival of her chicks

the fox takes what it can from human settlement, offering nothing in return; whereas the hen receives what it needs, and gives eggs in return

the fox is cunning, but fearful of humans; whereas the hen is wise enough to live under their protection and provision

ultimately the fox will see off its offspring, as potential threat to its own territory; whereas the hen will live out its days with its children

Taken together, the images we build up of the fox and the hen symbolise an independent and an interdependent life: what it looks like when relationships within creation are broken, and what it looks like when they are redeemed.

But what has any of this to do with Lent, with journeying with Jesus into the desert places? Mark presents us with the shortest account of that time – an account that gives no focus to the testing Jesus faced – and yet he gives us an insight not found in Matthew or Luke. In the wilderness, Jesus was with the wild animals.

What was Jesus doing in the desert, those forty days? We know, from Matthew and Luke, that he was reading Deuteronomy. But Mark tells us that he was also observing the animals who made their home in the desert. We are told that Jesus did not eat; but in order to survive, he would have needed a source of water, and a place of shelter (from the heat of the sun by day, and from the cold at night). And it would appear that Jesus was studying the ways the desert animals had found to survive in such a place.

Indeed, there is a tradition within the Wisdom Literature of Jesus’ people (Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs) of learning from nature.

Perhaps this is why the Spirit descended on Jesus, and led him into the desert, in the form of a dove...

In our western civilisation, we have found new ways of distancing ourselves from nature. It is perfectly possible to live our days without stopping to observe the natural world. At the same time, it is perfectly possible to watch magnificent natural history series on television, learning about animals without learning anything from them. These things are to our loss.

One of the easily and often overlooked aspects of Lent is the invitation to reconnect with wild animals. Precisely because they are wild, this requires of us that we stop, and wait, and do nothing but watch attentively...

What might we discover?

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