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?
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.