If I could reduce the purpose and practice of Lent into a single idea, I would use this quote from a poem by St. Theresa of Avila:“[God] desired me, so I came close.”
It’s very sad to me that the most pervasive notion about Lent (my favorite season) is that it is a dark and difficult season, to be approached with avoidance, guilt, and self-loathing; that we have to “tame” our desires by giving something up, then use all the self-control we can muster to keep our Lenten promises. Doesn’t it occur to those people that exerting our self-will is exactly what we are called NOT to do during Lent?
Lent isn’t a time of practicing self control. It’s a time of relinquishing it. During Lent we practice discipline and penitence. It’s a mistake to confuse discipline with self-control and penitence with wallowing. In fact, it’s sin: the sin of hubris – the very thing that got Adam and Eve in trouble in the garden.
Our discipline and repentance are the means by which we re-enter the womb of God where we can rest, be restored, renewed, and prepared. In his book, “Praying Shapes Believing,” theologian Lee Mitchell reminds us that: “Joy, love, and renewal are as much Lenten themes as are penitence, fasting, and self-denial; and we need to remember that it is within the context of preparation for our participation in the Feast of feasts that [our] Lenten penitence is expressed.” (29).
Or - as St. Theresa said, “[God] desired me so I came close.”
Temptation is that which leads us into sin – and sin is that which causes us to forget who we are, whose we are, and why we’re here. St. Luke tells us that Jesus, the Incarnate One, the manifest reality of the unity of humanity and divinity, was tempted to separate himself into a dichotomy of body and spirit; to focus on his humanity (he was famished) and forget about his divinity.
Next, though he knew his purpose on earth (the reason he came), Jesus was tempted to walk away from God’s plan for his life and live out a different plan – one in which he, rather than God, would get the glory.
Finally, Jesus was tempted to throw his life away, daring God to prove that he mattered.
Each of these temptations teaches us something about our relationship with God. The first temptation, separation from the spark of the divine that is within us, goes to our very identity. We are body and spirit. In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ, humanity and divinity were reconciled. Each of us is, therefore, a living testimony to that harmonious co-existence. To separate ourselves, even in our thoughts, is to undo the gift Christ died to give us.
The second temptation, putting ourselves and our wills ahead of our obedience to the will of God, goes to how, or even whether, we will live into our purpose. If Jesus’ life is any example,
living into our purpose won’t be all blessing and honor, but it will be redemptive – for us and for those whom God puts in our lives. When we’re honest, it seems ridiculous that we think we can devise a plan for happiness and fulfillment by chasing after that perfect life partner, or that perfect job, or that perfect body. Our hubris is, at times, astonishing.
The third temptation, trying to prove we matter by throwing away the very gift God gave us in the first place, goes to our core understanding of ourselves as beloved. It’s true that many people don’t feel very beloved, their earthly experiences have taught them to believe otherwise. But faith assures us that we are truly beloved of God.
The temptations Jesus faced in our gospel story aren’t the only temptations out there. Discovering what our temptations are and repenting of them is our goal during Lent.
Some of us eat to comfort ourselves. For these, repentance means honest self reflection along with substituting prayer or prayerful activity for cookies or chips.
Others among us work too much in order to win approval or to feel like we matter. For these, repentance means committing to a schedule that balances time devoted to work, family, leisure, and real time with God.
Some of us habitually deny ourselves anything good out of self-loathing. For these repentance means fasting from self-criticism or keeping a prayer journal which acknowledges the daily gifts and blessings God is constantly giving.
For all of us, Lent is a good time to commit to regular attendance at Sunday worship or Morning Prayer, remembering that we live out our purpose in community as the body of Christ in the world. Lent is also a good time for all of us to fast from complaining, self-criticism, foods or eating habits that will harm us, combativeness at work, in school, or in church – whatever leads us away from the love of God, self, and other.
The disciplines we practice are meant to help us enter humbly into the presence of God, where we surrender ourselves to God’s unfathomable love and unfailing care for us. The emptiness in us that continually seeks satisfaction comes from our sense of separation from that love. We know this deep down but often don’t pay it real attention.
It’s helpful to remember that God desires communion with us. Doing so quiets those voices of temptation that play like a tape-recording in our heads, saying: you’re not worthy, you’re not beautiful, you’re not gifted, you’re not loved. We are. We’re also unfinished… continually growing, maturing in body and in spirit.
Our brokenness is not something to be ashamed of or to avoid. It is as much a gift as any talent we possess because it is the place in us where God dwells most assuredly, most compassionately.
Our brokenness is the cross we bear; the place where salvation is victorious in us; the place where we witness the reconciling power of God still at work in the world. When others see this growth and maturation in us they are empowered to stop being ashamed of their brokenness, to pick up their cross and walk into redemption.
Draw close to God this Lent. God desires it. We hunger for it. There’s nothing to fear.
The poem that I quoted from St. Theresa of Avila (which is a handout in your bulletin)
concludes like this:
A thousand souls hear [God’s] call every second,
but most every one then looks into their life’s mirror and
says, “I am not worthy to leave this
When I first heard his courting song, I too
looked at all I had done in my life
“How can I gaze into his omnipresent eyes?”
I spoke those words with all my heart,
but then He sang again, a song even sweeter,
and when I tried to shame myself once more from His presence
God showed me His compassion and spoke a divine truth,
“I made you, dear, and all I made is perfect.
Please come close, for I