Love in the Time of Cholera, the great novel by Colombian Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez, was published in 1985, about a generation ago as times are reckoned. Today we are beginning the observance of what one day may be called Lent in the Time of Covid-19. The mounting infection rate and the slow increase in the number of deaths outside of China and adjoining nations have sent tremors of fear around the world. Pope Francis‘ sniffles on Ash Wednesday made headline news.
The health crisis may pass quickly, as President Trump predicted, or it may worsen and spread, despite desperate measures to curtail it. If nothing else, this ‘novel‘ virus serves to underscore the time-worn injunction still sometimes heard when ashes are distributed on the Wednesday so appointed: “Remember, man, that thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return.“ (The more appropriate form, “Turn away from sin and believe in the gospel,“ truly indicates what Lent is all about.)
Even so, the Church reminds us through the coming season that this is a joyful time, an opportunity for reflection and amendment of life. It is not cause for dread and fear, but of hope, a reminder that redemption and salvation are not wishful thinking and idle fancies, but real possibilities.
“Lent” comes from the old English word ‘Lenten,’ which simply means ‘Spring,’ probably because the days are now lengthening. The word has no particular religious significance and might seem odd in the southern hemisphere where autumn is approaching. But centuries of Christian usage have lent it a sacred meaning, so to speak. From at least the fourth century, Christians celebrated these forty days as a special time of preparation for the great Paschal mysteries to come. 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 begins to shape his public ministry by rejecting paths that would have led him away from the cross.
Each of the readings focuses on a “test,” a “temptation” if you will – a possible course of action that appears to be beneficial but
would lead to disaster.
In the story from Genesis, God did not test Adam and Eve in order for them to sin. Nor did the serpent lie to them so much as he explained why the tree had been forbidden. He knew what the fruit of the tree would do and cunningly told them so. And like so many of us faced with a prize beyond our reach, they coveted power, disobeyed God, and failed the test. That failure, St. Paul tells us, is the origin of sin. And it, too, set a pattern.
That is why withdrawing to a vantage point where we can begin to expose the allurements of the world is a necessary part of the spiritual path. It breaks the pattern. It allows us to see things in God’s light. And because we are so used to walking by other lights, the adjustment takes a little time.
Whatever happened out in the Judean desert in that long period after Jesus’ baptism, the gospel accounts in Matthew and Luke are carefully constructed, virtually rabbinical debates, between Jesus and his diabolical adversary. They are all but identical, differing mainly in the order of one of the “temptations.” The point is the same –neither power nor glory, neither fame nor personal welfare, must deter him from his path. The resolutions Jesus achieves are models for action, perhaps less for Jesus as presented in the gospels, as they are for us.
Lent presents a special opportunity to join Jesus in his wilderness journey, not only or even especially by fasting and other works of rigorous observance. While encouraging penitential discipline, the Church prefers having us read passages from the prophets, Isaiah in particular, who caution us against works of obvious piety. Jesus himself had little use for displays of penitence:
“…when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face” [Matt 6:16-17].
Our lenten discipline allows us to be proven, tested, assayed, scrutinized — by ourselves but also by the Spirit of God. If it is effective, like Jesus we will encounter the power and allurement of the world, sometimes in its least humane and unloving face. In some ways we will be confronted by Satan, the adversary. In all of this, we are supposed to feel drawn, pulled, lured. For it is by resisting that we gain clarity, strength, and direction for our return to the world.
The tests posed to Jesus that begin unraveling the coiled history of sin are as relevant to us today as they were in first century Judea. We are impelled to feed the hungry as Jesus fed the multitudes, but providing only for material needs misses the deeper, more urgent hunger. Social welfare is not enough. Astounding achievements may seem like invasions of the divine, but even miracles can lure us into mere admiration and complacency, leaving the real work undone. And there is always the lure of wealth and power, by means of which, we are convinced, we could really put things right, if only we had enough of them. Of course, there never seems to be enough. In time, if we are lucky, we will learn that all such means are not only dangerous, they also corrupting. Unless, that is, we put the Realm of God first. And then, as Jesus knew, the rest will follow.
In the end, no matter how many stages or trials we pass through, like Jesus we must eventually return to the world. That is the goal and purpose of the testing. We must go back into the home, the classroom, the marketplace, the laboratory, the courts, the hospital, the factory, the firehouse, the police station and the television station, but hopefully strengthened against the powers found there that can dull our spiritual sensibilities and blunt our efforts. For we have work to do there. It is called ministry.