Why Lent?

This is the first Sunday in Lent.  Every year on this day, we (along with Anglicans across the globe) chant the Great Litany, where we say, among many other similar things, “From all evil and wickedness; from sin; from the crafts and assaults of the devil; and from everlasting damnation, Good Lord, deliver us…From all inordinate and sinful affections; and from all the deceits of the world, the flesh and the devil, Good Lord, deliver us.”  And so on.

Every year on Ash Wednesday, which was five days ago, we confess to God, “our…unfaithfulness: the pride, hypocrisy, and impatience in our lives…our self-indulgent appetites and ways, and our exploitation of other people.”[i]

Every year for Lent we give up things we love—that make us smile and grant us a bit of pleasure after our daily slog—like chocolate or beer.

And every year on the First Sunday in Lent—every year—we read the Gospel story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, when the devil relentlessly pummels a tired, weak, and famished Jesus.

I don’t know about you, but we’re thirty minutes into the First Sunday in Lent, and I’m already miserable!  After the Advent season of expectation and anticipation, the Christmas season of joy, and the Epiphany season in which our eyes are opened to the wonder of God, we find ourselves—like Jesus—swiftly cast into a barren Lenten wilderness in which anticipation dies of thirst, joy withers, and our eyesight is dimmed by darkness.  Jeez, Louise, I want to crawl in a hole for the next forty days.

Have you ever asked why?  If Lent were a resolution passed by us in convention, the many things I’ve just described would be the “whereases”: Whereas we acknowledge our sin, whereas we repent in sorrow, whereas we deny ourselves, whereas we read of the temptation of the Savior…  But what is the “Be it therefore resolved” in this resolution?  Why do we subject ourselves to these forty days of self-abasement before we dust off the seersucker and flowered hats for Easter?  Is misery good for its own sake?  Why Lent?

Are we supposed to be miserable in Lent?

It’s probably a good idea to look closely at the Gospel reading today, the temptation of Jesus that gives us the model for Lent.  Though in church we’ve had six intervening Sundays, in Matthew’s narrative today’s reading follows immediately after what we read in church way back on January 8, the day Jesus was baptized.  On that day, you may recall that Jesus had an epiphany.  The eyes of his soul were opened to the presence of God, both around him and in his own life.  Some scholars believe it was at that very moment that Jesus began to recognize that he was different, that he was set apart for some special purpose.  And it was right then, in the wake of that profound, heady, and life-altering experience, that Jesus found himself cast into the wilderness and tempted by the devil.

That makes good and evident sense.  It is often when we feel unexpected wind in our sails, in those moments when the world seems to bend to our will, when a voice from God (or somewhere) says to us, “You are special” that we find ourselves tempted to believe our own hype and find first our behavior and then our very selves twisted into people we scarcely recognize and don’t want to be.

Matthew’s narrative of Jesus’ temptation is sparse.  The way he tells the tale, Jesus immediately rebuffs each of the devil’s propositions.  But I doubt that’s the way it happened.  I suspect the reality was something much closer to Martin Scorsese’s 1988 film The Last Temptation of Christ, in which Jesus very humanly indulged fantasies of his temptations, imagined in lengthy detail what his life would look like if he went down various avenues, anguished over the loss of things that he knew weren’t good and right for him but that he nevertheless desired and craved.

In other words, I don’t think Jesus’ time in the wilderness was a speedy chess match in which Jesus quickly bested the devil.  I think it was a protracted time (forty days in the bible simply means “a really long time,” after all) when Jesus struggled with his own shadow in all the ways we are encouraged to do in Lent.  Jesus’ temptation truly is our model in these forty days.

But again, that begs the question, why?  And the answer comes in what is usually considered a throwaway line at the tail end of today’s Gospel passage, when Jesus’ trial is done.  But it’s no afterthought.  It’s actually the key to the whole thing, the “be it resolved” of our entire Lenten proclamation.  That final line is the “why” of Lent: “Then the devil left Jesus, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.”  Eugene Peterson’s translation, The Message, gives this verse its more telling emphasis.  Peterson says, “The Devil left.  And in his place, angels!  Angels came and took care of Jesus.”  I believe whole-heartedly that the trajectory of the story—its entire point—is those angels who rush in at the end. I’ll say more about that in a moment…

Too often, too many Christian preachers and Christian people treat Lent as if for forty days a year God wants us to be self-abasing and self-loathing.  Hear me say (and pardon these strong words): That is heresy.  If all our Lenten observances are intended to make us feel lower than a snake’s belly in a wagon rut, then we are forgetting God’s proclamation at the dawn of the world upon creating humankind in God’s own image, when God gazed upon us and said, “Indeed, it is very good.”[ii]

At Jesus’ baptism, it was revealed that Jesus was destined.  And before Jesus could fulfill that destiny, Jesus had to undergo the difficult and almost upending experience of temptation in all the ways human beings are tempted.  Jesus was tempted by indulgence, by status, by power.  In a phrase: Even Jesus was tempted to take on a false self.  And so, Jesus’ own wilderness time was not self-abasing; it was a stripping bare.  It was a casting off of the layers of temptation so that what remained was only the core, only the goodness, only the image of God that was Jesus’ heart.  And then, like magnets to a pole or moth to flame, the angels of God rushed in to Jesus, to tend him, minister to him, build him up in truth rather than falsehood and temptation, so that Jesus could be the One God had called him at his baptism to be.

That is our Lenten model.  Over time—over life—the temptations that beset us, the temptations to which we too-often give in, accrete upon us layers of indulgence and false selves that bury deep underneath our delusion that image of God in which we are created.  Our Lenten observance—the drone of the Great Litany, the practices we take on, the things we give up, the reminders of our mortality—all of these intend not to abase us or make us miserable, but to strip us bare of that delusion, to shed our false selves, to bore down to the image of God at the heart of us.  In us, as in Jesus, that image then shines forth to the angels, who will rush in to us and bear us on their wings.

We see this at other times in life, when our stripping bare is unintentional, times of illness, or economic hardship, or family crisis, when, as our layers are shed in the midst of it all, we encounter God in a profound way.  Lent is simply the same thing, but with intention.  That is the “why” of Lent.           

So, this Lent, hear the words of the Great Litany.  Renew your repentance and faith.  Give up something meaningful, or better yet something that should be given up altogether, or take on a new discipline.  But in all these things, remember always that you are good.  You are created in the very image of God.  And God loves you so much that, when you are stripped bare and in greatest need, God’s angels will rush in to tend you. 

[i] Book of Common Prayer, 268.

[ii] Genesis 1:27-31.

To whom do we belong?

In this season, our second reading each Sunday—the one we most often neglect, the one during which congregants are most likely to jot down their grocery lists on the back of a welcome card or wonder how long the preacher is going to talk—is from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians.  Chopped into weekly bits, the letter doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but read in a sitting, as one would normally read any letter, it’s a fascinating piece of writing.

Paul has spent eighteen months in Corinth, first preaching the new Gospel of Jesus, then recruiting the church there, and finally establishing the structures of that church so that when Paul leaves it can continue to flourish.  But, barely down the road toward his next stop, a rider catches up with Paul to tell him that, back in Corinth, all hell has broken loose.

To understand this, we first need to understand Corinth itself.[i]  Corinth had been an ancient city, but when Rome conquered it, it scattered Corinth’s inhabitants and leveled the old city to the ground to build a brand-new Corinth on the ruins of the old.  Rome then transplanted people from all over the empire with promises of land and other incentives to populate the new Corinth.  The result was a polyglot city that was something like a cross between Las Vegas and New Orleans during Mardi Gras.  Corinth was a glittering, anything goes, “What happens in Corinth stays in Corinth” kind of town, and even the newly-converted Christians had trouble leaving their old habits behind.

“Corinth was something like a cross between Las Vegas and New Orleans during Mardi Gras.”

So, what are the presenting issues that furtive rider shares with St. Paul on the road?  What is going on in the Corinthian church that causes Paul to stop in his tracks and write an often-furious letter of warning to his former flock?  The first issue Paul addresses is that a lay leader in the Corinthian church has taken up an intimate physical relationship (to put it mildly) with his own stepmother.[ii]  Next, it turns out that affluent church members—the ones who don’t have to work at wage-earning jobs all day—show up early for the evening Eucharist and sit around getting drunk on Communion wine.[iii]  And even further on, Paul castigates church members for arguing over whose spiritual gifts are greater: the healers, the prophets, those who speak in tongues, etc.  The image is of school kids bickering on the playground about who is the “coolest.”  It’s at that point that Paul calls them all “noisy gongs and clanging cymbals.”[iv]  And so on.  You can’t make this stuff up.  (See how interesting the bible can be?!?)

Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians reads, in many places, like a parent saying, “That thing you’re doing?  Stop it!”  But in other places, St. Paul takes a step back and offers a theological diagnosis to the overall problem of Corinth.  He recognizes that all the Corinthians’ foibles, errors, and gross transgressions are symptomatic of something much deeper and more pervasive.  Once in chapter one and again today in chapter three, Paul poses the overarching question, and it’s a question that pertains throughout the ages, as much to us as it does to first century Corinth.  Paul asks his readers, “To whom do you belong?”

That’s an interesting word, belong.  Its etymology traces to two meanings, both of which are worth notice.  The first is from the Dutch, and it means “to concern.”[v]  In other words, we belong to that with which we are concerned.  That makes perfect sense.  That which occupies our thoughts, which populates our anxiety, on which we spend our time, our energy, our money…that which concerns us, owns us in a sense.  We belong to that with which we are concerned. 

The great twentieth century theologian Paul Tillich took this notion to its logical end and said that our god is that with which we are ultimately concerned.[vi]  And in that case, if we’re honest, the God we claim to worship when we come to church is not, by Tillich’s measure, our true god.  That’s hard to hear and even harder to accept, but what Tillich forces us to confront is this: How much of our time outside of these walls; how much of our consideration when we make decisions throughout our daily lives; how much of our interactions with other people; are determined by our devotion and adoration of God?  Not much, Tillich would say.  Most of us don’t often pause to consider the God of grace incarnate in Jesus as we tick through the moments of our day, and thus Tillich would say that God is not really our ultimate concern.  Instead, our ultimate concerns are placed in many other things: our ideology, our politics, our finances, our biases, our addictions, our petty grudges, our legitimate personal worries.  Some of these things are toxic, and some are benign.  But Tillich says that whichever of these things, or combination of these things, preoccupies our thoughts and drives our decisions, those are our ultimate concerns and thus those are our gods.  Those are the things to which we belong.  St. Paul is saying the same thing to the Corinthians.  “To whom do you belong?” Paul asks them throughout his letter.  Judging by their behavior, they belong to any number of things, but they don’t belong to Christ.

And that points to the second meaning of the word “belong.”  It is from the Middle English, and it means “to be fitting.”[vii]  In other words, we “fit” ourselves—we conform our thoughts, our actions, our decisions, our behavior—to that to which we belong.  If our ultimate concern is wealth, we act materialistically.  If our ultimate concern is winning in business, politics, life, we become vicious.  If our ultimate concern is a bottle, we will ignore all other responsibilities in order to get that drink.  We fit our actions to that to which we belong.  Paul’s deep frustration with the Corinthians is that their actions are entirely unfitting with discipleship.  The Corinthians claim to follow Jesus, but in their actual lives they follow anything and everything but Jesus!

And that is worth some introspection for us, too.  We may rebel against the notion that our gods are something other than God, but Paul presents us with a way to check ourselves: How do we act?  Do we fit ourselves to the ways of love and grace?  Or, do we, in Paul’s words, “behave according to human inclinations”[viii] and chase after other gods?

The Rector’s Book Club discussed C.S. Lewis’ classic The Great Divorce this past week.  Lewis’ book is about heaven and hell, and his conclusion is that hell is the life lived with something other than God as its ultimate concern.  Most of the characters in The Great Divorce who find themselves in hell don’t even realize where they are.  They are so consumed by concerns other than God, they so entirely fit their attitudes and actions to those other concerns, that, though they are miserable, they fail to recognize why.  Some seek to possess their spouses or children as instruments of their own worth and meaning; some are obsessed with their superiority, others by their victimhood; some thrive on their arrogance and indignation; some are consumed by addiction.  But in every instance, the characters belong to, and fit their lives to, something other than God.

Heaven is constantly held out to each of them, and for those who ultimately enter heaven the threshold is crossed when they say, in essence, “I will no longer fit myself to this other thing.  I will no longer allow it to be my ultimate concern.  I will no longer belong to it.  I will belong to God.” 

Then the world changes.  Hell becomes heaven.  God, as the new ultimate concern, becomes the prism through which all other concerns are viewed and considered.  Grace becomes the milieu through which all else is encountered.  And that, then, changes action.  The characters find that they begin to fit themselves to God.  They begin to interact in ways that channel grace to others.  Love itself becomes purer, as all other loves in life flow first from their love for God. As it is in C.S. Lewis’ fable, so it is in our very real lives, in our very real world.  St. Paul says to us, as St. Paul says to the Corinthians, you belong to God.  Let go of all else.  Allow God to be your ultimate concern.  Fit yourself to God’s grace.  Then even the hells we encounter in life we will find transformed into heaven.

[i] Horsley, Richard A.  1 Corinthians, 22-28.

[ii] 1 Corinthians 5:1

[iii] 1 Corinthians 11:20-22

[iv] 1 Corinthians 13:1

[v] https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/belong#:~:text=be%E2%80%A7long-,Etymology%201,(%E2%80%9Cto%20belong%E2%80%9D)

[vi] See Tillich’s Dynamics of Faith.

[vii] https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/belong#:~:text=be%E2%80%A7long-,Etymology%201,(%E2%80%9Cto%20belong%E2%80%9D)

[viii] 1 Corinthians 3:3