Monday, February 8, 2016

Lent: Making space for something new

For many of us, on Ash Wednesday, which is the first day of Lent, we gathered in solemn assembly and marked the sign of our salvation - the cross of Christ - on our foreheads with the dust of ashes. By doing so, we also marked these next 5 weeks of Lent as different – sacred time set aside for a purpose.

The word “Lent” means “spring” and it refers to a time when new life is being formed, and the one forming that new life is the same one who forms all life: God. We’re mistaken when we think we need to choose what to DO or STOP DOING for Lent. We don’t DO Lent. We simply choose to let Lent (new life) be formed in us – and we do that by faith.

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus, filled with the Holy Spirit, is led by the Spirit in the wilderness.(4:1) The Greek word translated here as ‘wilderness’ and in other versions of the Bible as ‘desert’ can also be understood to mean ‘a place that is uncultivated.’ So, the Spirit takes Jesus from his baptism to a place that is uncultivated and prepares him for his purpose. Luke tells us that throughout this time of cultivation, Jesus is tempted.

Jesus, in the fullness of his humanity, really is tempted, and in the fullness of his divinity, Jesus could have responded very differently. I think we let ourselves off the hook about our own responses to temptation by supposing that in his divinity, Jesus could simply out-power the devil and stand firm against temptation – something we, who are not divine, can’t do. But if we do that, we’re forgetting the truth of the Incarnation and we’re missing the gift of this gospel story – how to cultivate faithfulness to God in a world of temptations.

Luke tells us that Jesus went from his baptism into a season of cultivation… a season of 40 days. Forty days was a colloquial term for ‘many’ and meant ‘a period of time that was long enough,’ that is, enough time for God to act. He fasted, allowing himself to physically know the emptiness he was entering, trusting in God alone to sustain his life.

That is what Lent is for us. Time we set aside to go willingly into the emptiness and allow God to cultivate us, to prepare us for our purpose. Lent is not a time for us to wallow in the misery of our wretchedness as hopeless sinners. We don’t fast in order to suffer, or as punishment for sin. We fast to allow ourselves to experience emptiness. In the deep, dark center of ourselves, we willingly choose to make space for something new, something nourishing and life-giving that God will supply.

During Lent, we get honest about God. In Psalm 91, we are reminded that God is our refuge and stronghold, the One in whom we put our trust. But if we choose to make God into a big judge who is waiting to smite us for every failing we know we have, then we feel justified in keeping our distance and we have fallen prey to the second temptation Jesus faced: idolatry; making for ourselves an image of God to worship and serve (or not to worship and serve), rather than being in relationship with the one, true God.

During Lent, we also get honest about ourselves. We are all marvelously and wonderfully made by our Creator, who hates us not. But we often forget to live as if that’s true about us and our neighbors. There are times that every one of us will find ourselves lacking the will to be compassionate toward someone else when it involves some amount of sacrifice from us. There are (or will be) times in our lives when our anger erupts quickly, while forgiveness comes slowly, if at all.

We tend toward being so preoccupied with ourselves and our own, that we become blind to the fact that all around us, others of God’s kin are suffering, lacking food, friendship, or hope. Sometimes, our preoccupation with ourselves takes the form of addiction and we can be addicted to many things: being the center of attention, food, alcohol or drugs, or work. Other times, our preoccupation with ourselves takes the opposite form: subtraction - diminishing ourselves as if we don’t matter at all through things like: anorexia and bulimia, abusive relationships, and constant self-censure.

It is in these forms of self-preoccupation that we confront the third temptation Jesus faced: testing God. It sounds something like this: ‘If I work to destroy myself, will I matter enough that God will save me?’ The truth is, we do matter to God. God has already saved us, giving up everything, including his own life, for our salvation. What else do we need? Testing God is a deception. What we’re actually doing is denying God.

So, Lent offers us the opportunity to get honest about God and ourselves, and the hard work of Lent is emptying ourselves of all that already fills us, including the need to be full and satisfied. But emptiness scares us. The nothingness of it feels kind of like death, so we tend to avoid it. That’s why Lent is different. Knowing that by our baptism we have entered into Jesus’ death and resurrection we have no fear of death, not even the little ones like the death of a habit, or the death of an idea we hold about God, ourselves, or our neighbors.

The traditional Lenten practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are tested and reliable ways we can use to respond to God’s call to us to return with our whole hearts. Prayer brings us into the presence of God who created us, gave up his life on the cross for us, and calls us to a season of cultivation to prepare us for our purpose. Fasting reminds us of our mortality and our real limitations as humans, and it provides a way for us to experience solidarity with those who truly hunger. When we remember how real and compelling hunger is, we are moved by compassion to do something to relieve it – even if it means making a bit of a sacrifice. And alsmgiving is the way we can do that: giving of ourselves: our money, time or gifts to serve those children of God who suffer from any lack: food, friendship, hope, or faith.

Our Lenten practices aren’t about success or failure. If you are diabetic, on medication, or for some other reason you can’t fast from food –don’t. We can fast from lots of other things: criticizing, complaining, or estrangement.

We don’t score points for praying, fasting or giving alms, and we don’t get demerits for not doing those things because we don’t DO Lent. We choose it. During Lent we choose to make space in our lives for God to cultivate new life in us.