Each year about this time newspapers feature pictures of Catholics and many other Christians having ashes rubbed on their faces. The season of penitence has arrived. The rhythm doesn’t vary much from year to year. And perhaps it shouldn’t. It donates a kind of spiritual security to our
lives, living as we do in the midst of sudden social change and competing forms of natural and artificial chaos. Perhaps this year especially. So people crowd into churches to get their ashes. And yet, isn’t Lent supposed to shake us up a bit?
“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. But centuries of Christian usage have lent it a sacred meaning, if you’ll excuse the pun. From at least the fourth century, Christians celebrated these forty days before Easter as 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 discovers the shape of his public ministry, essentially by rejecting paths that would have led him away from the cross.
So Lent presents a special opportunity to join with Christ in his wilderness journey, not only or even especially by fasting and other works of rigorous observance. While encouraging penitential discipline, the Church delights in 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]
Instead, Jesus invites us to accompany him into the wilderness, so that we may join him later on Golgotha and the Garden of Resurrection.
In both versions there is a pattern which the communities of Matthew and Luke recognized as a paradigm of spiritual development: Jesus is summoned to his ministry and destiny at the Jordan by some kind of revelation as he emerges from the water. Next, he withdraws from the world, being led or even driven into the desert by the Holy Spirit, there to be tested. After enduring a series of challenges that enable him to see what form his ministry will take, he returns to the world.
The word both evangelists use for what we call “tempt” means to try or to test something, and also to attempt, or to examine, to entice, and even to discipline someone. It is related to the Latin root of the word experience, which means all of those things.
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 disobeyed God and failed the test. That failure, 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.
Gaining perspective can take people out of their normal routines for weeks, months, or even years. Or it may only be momentary and pass relatively unnoticed by those around. One way or another, that is why in former times Catholics were encouraged to give up certain things during the days of Lent — such as the theater, movies and, later, television, as well as innocent pastimes and enjoyments such as dancing, going to parties, getting married, or just eating sweets. Not because such things are wrong. They aren’t. But they soften us to the enticements of the world, distracting us from the necessary inner work of spiritual attentiveness and growth, imbedding us ever more firmly in patterns of social accommodation and assimilation. So we withdraw from them for a while to gain distance and perspective, not to become unhappy, isolated, and remote.
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 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 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 return to the world. That is the goal and purpose of the testing. We must go back into the movie theater, the classroom, the marketplace, the courts, the hospital, and the laboratory, but hopefully strengthened against their power to dull our spiritual sensibilities. For we have work to do there. It is called ministry.
Lent provides an opportunity, a gracious gift, for us to accompany Jesus back into the desert, to be tested, to see whether in this round of the journey of our lives, we may spiral closer to that burning heart of love around which all things move, and in which they live and have their being. May the Holy Spirit cast us out into that wilderness to accompany Jesus with a willing heart.