The appointment of the twelve apostles was a sign for those with eyes to see. It was also intensely practical. During the early chapters of Mark’s gospel, Jesus would arrive in a new place and do several things: attract crowds, heal the sick, teach, confront opposition, and call new followers. This pattern culminates in the beginning of Mark 3, where a healing on the Sabbath leads to the first conspiracy to kill him. The crowds are so thick that disciples have to commandeer a boat to allow Jesus a bit of space to teach and to heal.
Jesus finds this a fitting point to withdraw. He goes up the mountain and takes with him only those whom he sees fit. Twelve of these he appoints to be apostles: emissaries of a new Israel, a new people of God, whom he forms in the desert wastes. On the mountain, though not quite yet, they will see God’s glory, clothed in a transfigured Son. Jesus is a new Adam, exerting royal authority by bestowing names (Rock, Thunder-Sons) and delegating authority. Most of all, he is YHWH incarnate, constituting around himself a people in the desert.
Jesus lays a simple pair of charges on these new apostles. Later they will take on the full weight of his mission; they’ll forgive sins and make disciples of all peoples. But now they are simply to announce his coming (“repent and trust the gospel”) and cast out demons (kick out the enemy’s occupying forces). The most important aspect, I suspect, is in a little phrase that Mark inserts before the demons and the preaching. Why does Jesus appoint them? “So that they might be with him.” By marking them out, he ensures that they can be near him. Their sending necessitates his presence.
Lent calls us to love the burning desert wastes, to reorient our desires. Only here, in our hunger and exhaustion, thirst and desperation, do we demonstrate the deepness of repentance. Nowhere is more hostile to the world, the flesh, and the devil. But the desert is not our resting place. Easter promises a land flowing with milk and honey, new wine and new clothes, a ring and a bright new robe. But if we don’t go through the desert with him, feel its heat and see its barrenness, we won’t gain eyes to see and ears to hear. The cup of blessing will become a cup of wrath, and the prince of peace will seem to be Beelzebub, prince of demons. Beloved, let us learn to love these wastes.
Alex Poulos lives in Takoma Park, MD with his wife Brianna and 2-year-old son Gregory. At present, he’s writing a dissertation on the interplay of Christian and classical themes in the poems of the fourth century saint, Gregory of Nazianzus.