The Reverend Kathleen Killian
More or Less Lent
In his book Mere Christianity, CS Lewis writes: The moment you wake up each morning, all your wishes and hopes for the day rush at you like wild animals . . . and you begin to choose. He goes go on to say that every time a choice is made we are turning the central part of ourselves into something a little different than it was before, and slowly turning ourselves into either a heavenly creature or a hellish creature.
The Sufi poet Rumi considers that both the Devil and the angelic Spirit present us with objects of our desire precisely to awaken our power of choice; given the innumerable choices we make each hour of each day, we must be powerful creatures indeed, whether heavenly or hellish or both.
In the banquet of choices that is life itself, what is the first choice you made today? To wake up or sleep in? have coffee or tea? but what kind of tea? white, green, black, or herbal? (green would be my choice); to go to church, in person or online? and what shall I have for breakfast? shall I take a bite of the proverbial apple or leave it on the tree?
Even a good choice made with the best of intention doesn’t always produce the results we’re hoping for: We pick up our cross but then lay it down because it’s heavy and we’re hungry and there’s got to be a better more-efficient cost-saving way. And there probably is, though it’s not necessarily what God would choose for us. But then we forget to remember to pick up our cross again.
Which brings us to Jesus and the choices he made. On this first Sunday of Lent the story of Jesus’ temptations is always read. Each of the three synoptic gospels recount that the Holy Spirit who descended upon Jesus in the river Jordan, the same baptizing Spirit, immediately then leads, drives, and thrusts Jesus into the wilderness. From river to desert, from quenched and drenched to sun baked and parched, God’s Son, the Beloved is unceremoniously pushed out of the nest, and we his followers into the first full week of Lent and its “wilderness” of disciplines and temptations.
In the Greek, wilderness (eremos) is translated as lonely, lonesome, and a solitary place. Jesus was alone in the wilderness of deep wonder and lament, where demons prowl and angels keep watch, and this is where he made his hard-won, wrestled-over, sweaty-lean choices, choosing to stay in this lonely place for forty days and nights, until the work of the wilderness was over.
In the Bible, the number forty is significant as it represents a necessary time and initiatory span of transformation: rain fell for forty days and nights upon Noah’s ark; Moses communed with God for forty days and nights atop Mt. Sinai before descending with the Ten Commandments in hand; Israel wandered through the desert for forty years. In our Old Testament passage, Moses speaks to the Israelites at the end of their forty years in the wilderness to prepare them for their new life in the Promised Land, which they are about to enter. After the Resurrection, Jesus’ appeared to his disciples for forty days before he ascended; and from another faith tradition, Buddha meditated under the Bodhi tree for forty days before becoming enlightened.
And, it is only after Jesus has already spent forty days and nights alone in the wilderness, when he is tired and weak from fasting—famished, as Luke tells us—that the devil appears and goes for the jugular: If you are the Son of God, change this stone into a loaf of bread and fill your growling belly! Worship me, and I’ll give you all the kingdoms of the world—you’ll be famous, powerful, and rich!—not nobody from Nazareth. I dare you to jump from the top of the temple, because if you really are the Son of God, all in Jerusalem will see the angels bear you up; your status and reputation will be secure.
These three temptations correspond to those very same that afflicted the Israelites on their desert journey—that of precarious dependence upon God, idolatry and subservience, and a deep very real sense of vulnerability; these are the primary afflictions that disorder and tempt all of humanity. Jesus answers each of the devil’s taunts with words from the book of Deuteronomy one of the five books attributed to Moses: for it is written, one does not live by bread alone (Deut 8:3); Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him ( Deut 6:13); Do not put the Lord your God to the test (Deut 6:16).
The devil attempts to lure Jesus away from from his true identity and vocation as the Servant-Messiah. But in the stillness, silence, and struggle of the desert Jesus looked into his heart and saw how his identity as the Christ could be distorted into a demand, that he be exempt from human suffering or that he have control over others. His resistance to the devil's temptation of self-exaltation, his choice, opened the path to liberation for us all.
At the heart of the Lenten season is this invitation to liberation, to freedom and trust in Christ, which Paul sets forth in our Epistle from Romans: ‘No one who believes in Christ Jesus will be put to shame.’ For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
As disciples of Christ, Lent is our forty day pilgrimage into the wilderness of our lives and souls (not counting Sundays); it is the necessary time and initiatory span in which to make intentional and life-giving choices; to prepare for the mysteries of the paschal feast and the transformative and liberating renewal of our identity in Christ; for we are the brick and mortar—the flesh—of God’s kingdom of light. But as Jesus teaches, it is utterly impossible to build a world of reconciliation if we are armed within our own hearts and living at war within ourselves. The primitive and tribal self must give way to a radically new identity and “koinonia” or community of God’s Holy Spirit.
There are hundreds of Lenten resources from which to choose; programs, books, daily meditations, and virtual courses abound; right here at Christ Church we have Stations of the Cross, our Lenten book study and mid-week Eucharist with healing prayers, any or all of which could be a Lenten discipline. I also commend to you the Litany of Penitence from the Ash Wednesday liturgy (BCP, p.268) which could be your daily discipline of pray. But beware, that Lent becomes yet another consumerist “supersized” activity as it is not a forty-day course of self-help towards self-improvement.
The word “lent” actually means lengthening (of days), spring or springtime. Lent is both a growing season and time of spiritual spring cleaning and pruning. It is a season of more—of more light and longer days, and of making more room in our hearts for Christ—and also a season of less—of less stuff, of decluttering and simplifying our lives and letting go of what’s getting in the way of our relationship with God.
When we fast or abstain from a particular food, habit, or thought, less becomes more, though on occasion less is less; when I was in seminary a very eager classmate decided to undertake a great discipline during Lent by giving up the Eucharist. No, not a good choice! said a kindly professor who steered the lad in a different direction. When we give alms to those in need, traditionally money or food, and undertake special prayer and disciplines, more becomes more.
The fasting season of Lent is indeed a veritable feast of choices; though I think it’s safe to say that choosy moms—and discerning dads and disciples—choose Jesus.
As Jesus retraced the steps of the Israelites in the wilderness with his own, “recasting the destiny of all God’s people,” so too we can choose to make our Lenten pilgrimage for victims of the war in Ukraine, or in solidarity with any people or cause to which your feet are pulled, for Christ is present in every person.
Our gospel ends on a rather ominous and warning note: When the devil had finished every test, he departed from Jesus until an opportune time. Indeed, Jesus encountered evil and temptation until his dying day on the cross when he was taunted: Save yourself if you are God’s Son! Come on down from the cross! (Matthew 27:40). So too are we tempted in these forty days and will wrestle with the devil until our dying day. Ours is the journey of all faithful Christians, and one also taken alone accompanied only by God’s Holy Spirit.