Feast Day: April 25th
I would like to introduce you to a lion this week. No, it is not a wild lion – be not afraid! – but it is certainly not a tame one either – petting and photographing will not be to your advantage! – in fact it is a far more formidable beast than even the most powerful of the kings of the savannah! I speak, of course, of St. Mark the Evangelist and his Gospel. Within a hundred years of Jesus’ Resurrection, the Church had linked the Four Evangelists to the four creatures spoken of by the prophet Ezekiel which later reappear symbolically in the book of Revelation: the lion, the bull/ox, the man, and the eagle, all of them worshipping God. St. Irenaeus was the Church Father who linked these with the authors of the Gospels, seeing in the lion an image for Mark, whose Gospel begins in a desert with the roaring of John the Baptist: “prepare the way of the Lord.”
How are we to approach a lion? How are we to approach the Gospel? How are we to approach Christ? On the one hand, if we come infear and hesitation, we will never get close enough to truly understand what, and Who, is there before us. Consider the women at the end of Mark’s Gospel, who find the tomb empty and run away in wonder and fear. Only Mary, who takes back her courage and goes back to the tomb, has an encounter with the Risen Lord. Do our fears or trepidations keep us from engaging the Gospel in its entirety? Do we allow ourselves to be challenged by it? Do we take back our own courage and come back, even if we don’t feel up to grasping or grappling with God right now? Or, do we close God’s book, or never open it, or more subtly, just close our hearts and never open them to these potent words of God? Will we let these pages capture us anew?
On the other hand, we can also approach these sacred words as we would a declawed tabby, to pet and prod and provoke into chasing a laser-pointer around the room. We want to be delighted and comforted and so we turn to the story of Jesus looking for warmth and encouragement. We pick out the bits that console us, and skim over the parts that ask us for something more. We like to hear John speak of baptism, not so much of his call to repent and turn from sin. We enjoy listening to Jesus’ words of forgiveness and compassion and healing, not as much His prediction of rejection, persecution, and crucifixion.
The reality is that we are apt to be wildly disappointed whether we come to the Gospel of Mark hoping to avoid the ferocious lion, or to embrace only the kitten, for St. Mark’s Gospel is meant to both chase us, and comfort us. In C.S. Lewis’ book series, “The Chronicles of Narnia”, Aslan, the Christ figure, is portrayed as a giant but gentle; strong but self-sacrificing, lion. We memorably meet Him with Lucy, Peter, Susan, and Edmund in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe but He also appears in a less-read book of that series, The Horse and His Boy. There a poor, abused, boy, and a royal, but lonely, girl, and two talking horses – all of them starting from the pagan faraway lands – find their paths come together as they begin an adventure that carries them through the desert back to Narnia. Only at the end of their journey do they finally meet Aslan, and discover that He had guided, and guarded, and chased them all the way to their true home.
“Who are you?” [Shasta, the boy] said, scarcely above a whisper. “One who has waited long for you to speak,” said the Thing. Its voice was not loud, but very large and deep. “Are you—are you a giant?” asked Shasta. “You might call me a giant,” said the Large Voice. “But I am not like the creatures you call giants.” “I can’t see you at all,” said Shasta, after staring very hard. Then (for an even more terrible idea had come into his head) he said, almost in a scream, “You’re not—not something dead, are you? Oh please—please do go away. What harm have I ever done you? Oh, I am the unluckiest person in the whole world!” Once more he felt the warm breath of the Thing on his hand and face. “There,” it said, “that is not the breath of a ghost. Tell me your sorrows.”
Shasta was a little reassured by the breath: so he told how he had never known his real father or mother and had been brought up sternly by the fisherman. And then he told the story of his escape and how they were chased by lions and forced to swim for their lives; and of all their dangers in Tashbaan and about his night among the tombs and how the beasts howled at him out of the desert. And he told about the heat and thirst of their desert journey and how they were almost at their goal when another lion chased them and wounded Aravis. And also, how very long it was since he had had anything to eat. “I do not call you unfortunate,” said the Large Voice. “Don’t you think it was bad luck to meet so many lions?” said Shasta.
“There was only one lion,” said the Voice. “What on earth do you mean? I’ve just told you there were at least two the first night, and—” “There was only one: but he was swift of foot.” “How do you know?” “I was the lion.” And as Shasta gaped with open mouth and said nothing, the Voice continued. “I was the lion who forced you to join with Aravis. I was the cat who comforted you among the houses of the dead. I was the lion who drove the jackals from you while you slept. I was the lion who gave the Horses the new strength of fear for the last mile so that you should reach King Lune in time. And I was the lion you do not remember who pushed the boat in which you lay, a child near death, so that it came to shore where a man sat, wakeful at midnight, to receive you.”
“Then it was you who wounded Aravis?” “It was I.” “But what for?” “Child,” said the Voice, “I am telling you your story, not hers. I tell no one any story but his own.” “Who are you?” asked Shasta. “Myself,” said the Voice, very deep and low so that the earth shook: and again “Myself,” loud and clear and gay: and then the third time “Myself,” whispered so softly you could hardly hear it, and yet it seemed to come from all round you as if the leaves rustled with it. Shasta was no longer afraid that the Voice belonged to something that would eat him, nor that it was the voice of a ghost. But a new and different sort of trembling came over him. Yet he felt glad too. The mist was turning from black to gray and from gray to white. This must have begun to happen some time ago, but while he had been talking to the Thing he had not been noticing anything else. Now, the whiteness around him became a shining whiteness; his eyes began to blink. Somewhere ahead he could hear birds singing. He knew the night was over at last. He could see the mane and ears and head of his horse quite easily now. A golden light fell on them from the left. He thought it was the sun. He turned and saw, pacing beside him, taller than the horse, a Lion. The horse did not seem to be afraid of it or else could not see it. It was from the Lion that the light came. No one ever saw anything more terrible or beautiful.
I think we discover a similar truth every time we truly encounter Our Lord, including when we find Him in the pages of Scripture. Yes, He sometimes challenges and sometimes comforts; He sometimes roars and sometimes reassures, but all those times, and all the in between times, He is there, close, helping, prodding, healing, forgiving, and loving us home.
– Fr. Dominic Rankin has actually encountered more lions than deserts. He has only seen three deserts (the Chihuahuan and Great Basin in the USA, the Negev/Judean in Israel), but has seen multiple lions both in zoos and on the Serengeti. He has encountered St. Mark’s Gospel many more times than that and plans to maintain this ratio of lion-engagement going forward.