“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.”
Mark 1. 9-15
Most of us will have seen in a church or museum an altar triptych, a three-panelled work of art used as to instruct and focus the attention of a worshipping community. More often than not, the central panel of three contains the major scene, but the side panels also point to, elucidate, or comment upon the main image. A well-known example is Rogier van der Weyden’s Crucifixion triptych. The central panel shows Christ on the Cross flanked by his mother, beloved disciple, and by the patrons of the work. The side panels show respectively St. Veronica bearing the veil and Mary Magdalene, two prominent carers for Jesus in his last hours, and they both face inwards towards the Cross with doleful, downward cast, distraught appearances. The triptych calls us to contemplate the power and love of Christ’s death for us.
Triptychs may be found in other forms too, and serve a similar function, a call to contemplation. Today’s Gospel reading from Mark acts as a prologue to the rest of the Gospel and presents a triptych of dramatic, brief stories: the baptism, testing, and first proclamation of Jesus. These three scenes— these three panels as it were – assure us in this season of Lent of Jesus’ solidarity with us and the hope that, in the words of the Lord’s Prayer, we may not be led into temptation either. The central panel is Christ’s forty-day victory over Satan, flanked on one side by God’s declaration that Jesus is his Beloved, and on the other side by Jesus’ call to turn our lives around and believe the good news that we are called to be God’s children too. It is worthwhile exploring, then, these three panels to see how our relationship with Christ, renewed in focus and vigour these forty days of Lent, can guide and shape us into his likeness.
The left panel of the Gospel triptych is Jesus’ baptism. While secrecy and ignorance about Jesus’ identity are large themes in Mark’s Gospel, we are left in no doubt as to Jesus’ true identity: immediately after his baptism, “a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved.” (Mark 1.11) This theophany includes a vision of the “Spirit descending like a dove on him”, an allusion to the creation story of Genesis where God’s Spirit hovers over the waters. What is clear is that the incarnate Jesus is a new creation in which God raises up fallen humanity out of sin and into a new realm of divine possibilities. Of course, in our own baptism, we are acknowledged as dying and rising with Christ but also as a new creation too.
Within his baptism, Jesus shows solidarity with the fallen human race because he accepts a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” (Mark 1. 4) Such solidarity, which Jesus shows even though he is without sin, points towards the central panel, the testing of Jesus in the wilderness. The eternal, unbounded, impassible Word joins himself to our mortal, limited, and fragile nature. While Mark gives far less details of the forty days in the wilderness than Matthew or Luke, the general thrust of the panel is clear. Jesus remains victorious, bound as he is to our weak nature, surrounded as he is by hostile wild animals and tested by Satan. The victory of Jesus is bound up with an eternal will to redeem human nature, as is revealed by the care and love of the angels who wait on him. Such a will, care, and love has been shown to us too in our baptism, and through the care and nurture shown to us by God’s Spirit and other Christians. As we face our forty days of Lent, we can rest assured that our battle against sin has been already won even if the struggle is not over.
While the victory is won, it may not always feel like it, which takes us to the far right panel of our triptych: Jesus’ proclamation that “the time is fulfilled…repent and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1. 15) In condensed form, the proclamation features the entirety of Jesus’ message, to be unpacked in the rest of the Gospel. Yet, it also points us to the central testing of Jesus in the wilderness and offers a key to unlock our participation in Jesus’ victory. This third panel points us towards participation in Christ through its special notion of time. In the other two panels, references to time are conventional. The first panel of Jesus’ baptism takes place ‘in those days’, meaning the time of John the Baptist’s ministry. That favourite Markan phrase ‘immediately’ drives us and Jesus into the central wilderness panel. Yet, in this right panel we are told “the time is fulfilled.” Mark does not use a flat, conventional notion of time anymore, but prefers a Greek word that might better be translated as the right, opportune, or supreme time in which something of utmost importance is happening. “The time is fulfilled,” Jesus says, “repent and believe in the good news.” The right, opportune, and supreme time to turn back to God is now, every time we meet with Jesus, face-to-face in the Gospel or through the sacraments now. That turning turns us to the solidarity with Jesus so that we share in his wilderness victory in our own Lenten deserts.
Lent provides us with the right time to amend our lives, to turn back to God’s healing love, and to renew God’s recognition first made in baptism of us as beloved children. The triptych of scenes from Mark’s Gospel today reminds us of the victory over evil and death which is both already won and still to come fully in our lives. May we react to the right, opportune, and supreme moment afforded by Lent to commit ourselves to solidarity with Christ so that we may share in the fullness of life that he offers as the Beloved of God. Amen.