Today marks the real beginning of Lent. Ash Wednesday and the days afterwards were added some time after Lent was first observed to make up forty full days when people worried about whether the Sundays really counted as days of fast and abstinence. There is nothing particularly religious in the name, by the way, at least as far as English is concerned. It comes from an old word, Lenten, which simply means Spring, probably because the days are now visibly lengthening.
Christian usage has, so to speak, lent the word a sacred meaning. Whatever it is called, from at least the fourth century, Christians celebrated the forty days before Easter as special time of preparation for the great Paschal mysteries ahead of us. In Latin, it is called Quadragesima. The French call it carême, the Germans simply Fasten or Osterfasten. The forty days are taken from the account in Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels in which Jesus fasts and prays and through a series of trials discovers the shape of his public ministry, essentially by rejecting paths that would have led him away from the cross.
There is nothing particularly lugubrious about Lent, by the way. The preface to the Canon speaks of this “joyful season,” much as the Church sings of Advent. We do not sing Alleluias during Lent, because they are an Easter chant, but we are nevertheless to rejoice. But why? About what?
Taking the first reading as a clue, we are reminded of the ancient Hebrews’ joy as they looked back on their release from Egypt:
“… and the LORD heard our voice, and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression; and the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror, with signs and wonders…”
And, they go on to say, looking back with gratitude and love, “he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And see, now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground, which you, O LORD, have given me.'”
Lent is a time for taking stock, of remembering where we have come from, how it is we are now, here, in this place, able to worship and return thanks. St. Paul tells us very clearly why. Just as God saved the Hebrews from the slavery of Egypt, we have been saved from sin and death by Christ’s death and resurrection: so, “if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” The resurrection is the heart of it all. And the universality of salvation is guaranteed: “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.” For there is no longer any distinction to be made between Jew and Greek or anyone else. The same God is Lord of all and bestows his riches upon all who call upon him.” He repeats it for emphasis: “everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.” Reason enough for joy, reason enough to prepare.
As the exodus is the model of human salvation, the cross and resurrection of Christ is its fulfillment. That is where we are headed, and the journey toward that joyful resolution is what we mean by Lent. It presents us a special opportunity to join Christ in his wilderness journey, not only or even especially by fasting and other works of rigorous observance. In fact, while encouraging penitential discipline, the Church delights in having us read passages from the prophets, who caution us against works of obvious piety. We are, rather, to accompany Jesus into the wilderness, so that we may be with him later on Golgotha and in the Garden of Resurrection.
In both Matthew’s and Luke’s versions of Jesus’ experience in the wilderness, there is a clear structure present, a deliberate Christian paradigm which we are to emulate. Jesus has been awakened to his call to ministry at the Jordan by a revelation as he emerges from the water. Next, he withdraws from the world, being led or even driven by the Holy Spirit into the desert, there to be tested. The word both evangelists use is peirazo. It means, among other things, to try or assay or “prove” something, and also to attempt, to experience something, as well as to endeavor, examine, scrutinize, and so forth. It is a common enough word in the New Testament, used, for instance, when the Pharisees put Jesus to the test by asking him difficult questions. But it does not mean attraction to sin, or in that sense, moral temptation.
But Jesus had to work out the shape of his destiny, and this was the time of his testing. For us, also, withdrawing to a point where we can begin to explore the possibilities open to us as well as the path we have already taken is a necessary part of the spiritual journey. It can take us out of our normal routine for weeks, months, or years. Or it may be just a momentary examination of conscience, relatively unnoticed by those around us. One way or another, gaining perspective is essential.
That is the wisdom that lay in the old practice of giving up certain things during Lent — the theater, movies and, later, television, as well as innocent pastimes and enjoyments such as chewing gum (God help us!) and eating sweets. Or meat, which was considered a luxury. That was not because these things are bad, but because they soften us to the blandishments of society, distracting us from the necessary inner work of spiritual attentiveness and growth, imbedding us ever more firmly in the patterns of accommodation and assimilation to a world still opposed to the message of Christ. We withdraw from them for a time to break our routine, to toughen ourselves, to open ourselves to being proven, tested, assayed, scrutinized by ourselves and also by the Spirit of God. We are also likely to be confronted by the power and allurement of that old world, particularly in its least humane and loving face. In short, by the prince of that world, Satan, the adversary. And it is by resisting properly, in both small things are large, that we gain strength and direction for our lives.
The tests posed to Jesus are pertinent to us today as they were in first century Judea. Social welfare so often provides only for material needs, yet we must still feed the hungry just as Jesus fed the multitudes. Religious spectacle can be exhilarating, but easily lures us into mere admiration and complacency. And the lure of wealth and power lies in the thought that they are the means by which we can put things right. In the end, no matter how many stages or trials we pass through, we, like Jesus, must return to the waiting world. That is the goal and purpose of the testing. We are to go back into the world of the marketplace, the streets, and our own homes, possibly even chewing gum, but strengthened against the power of the world, the flesh, and the devil to dull and deflect our spiritual sensibilities. For we have work to do. It is called ministry.
So as we begin this joyful season of Lent, let us pray that the Holy Spirit will cast us also into that grace-filled wilderness where with a ready heart we will follow Jesus towards resurrection and new life.