by Deirdre Good and Julian Sheffield
The Lent that traditional observers experience today—the Lent of introspection and self-examination, of deprivation and penance—has almost nothing to do with Jesus.
Christians of the 3rd and 4th Century created the liturgical season of Lent by cobbling together the initiates’ practice of fasting before their Easter baptism with bits of scripture that included Abraham’s journey, Israel’s sojourn in the wilderness, stories about Jesus’ baptism and temptations for forty days, and predictions of suffering and death in a journey towards Jerusalem. Woven together over several centuries, these became a season in which Christians were encouraged, as we are now, “to make space for God” and prepare for Holy Week and Easter.
But Jesus’ own experience of temptation was not ours. The collect for the first Sunday of Lent demonstrates this dissonance:
Almighty God, whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan; Come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations; and, as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Jesus’ experience of testing in the wilderness followed the baptism by John and the beginning of his ministry. The prayer avoids the challenge of Mark’s Gospel wherein Jesus is “driven” by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted. But the desert itself is nowhere near a journey and nowhere near Lent. It is the place out of which John the Baptist comes. It is the place of confrontation with Satan. It is where wild animals and angels exist and perhaps because of all these associations, it will be a place where Jesus prays. From the wilderness, Jesus embarks on a ministry in Galilee for several years well before journeying once to Jerusalem at the end of his life. In Matthew and Luke, Jesus’ ministry is of even greater length after baptism, so the terminus of suffering and death in Jerusalem is even further off. Perhaps Jesus’ time of testing in the desert is preparation.
In Lent when we talk of growth in virtue as a consequence of resisting temptations, we are not speaking about Jesus but about ourselves. Only Luke speaks about Jesus’ advancement in wisdom and even then only in early childhood. Jesus’ temptations were a clarification of what it meant to be God’s son: to trust God for food and protection and to be obedient rather than self-reliant. In these respects we share dependence on God as children with Jesus: but the gospels’ descriptions of Jesus’ time in the wilderness depict a relationship with God of a completely different order from ours.
According to Matthew, the devil tempted Jesus on the basis of his abilities: to make bread from stones; to throw himself off the temple and be rescued by angels and to have dominion over all the kingdoms of the world. These are not abilities within our purview. We can extrapolate from them that we might want to solve the problem of world hunger, or that we need to learn to trust God for protection or that we desire to bring the world under the power of God but these are different issues from those that Jesus faced in his temptations. We might aspire to achieve these things: they were within the grasp of Jesus as Son of God only to be set aside in favor of obedience.
Prayer, fasting and acts of penance in Lent are ours not Jesus’. It is on our own sins not those of Jesus that we meditate. And tradition holds that Jesus didn’t have any sins to do penance for. It is to us not to Jesus that the words are spoken: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Jesus was driven into the wilderness to be tempted but modern observers of Lent decide how they’re going to be tempted in advance. To say “I’m giving up alcohol for Lent” as someone might say, is to say “I’m going to determine the environment in which I will resist temptation.” Facile attempts in Lenten prayers and sermons to connect our struggles with the temptations of Jesus are unhelpful. It is on our own journey of penance in Lent that we embark.
We can however consider –since Jesus was driven by the Spirit into the wilderness–involuntary Lent. (I leave aside here all other questions including these: why was Jesus driven by the Spirit into the wilderness? What Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness?)
We know, because they are us, those who might not observe Lent but who engage in self-reflection and self-denial for various reasons and those whose circumstances of life now place them in a season of stringency. Amongst those who do not observe Lent formally are other Christians, many of whom still might practice acts of charity, almsgiving, and taking on other disciplines in Lent. I talked with a member of the Salvation Army in New York City yesterday who confirmed these possibilities.
Those who might now be experiencing an involuntary Lent would include people who are ill and those without jobs or benefits. Going through chemotherapy was for me an involuntary Lent when I was being treated for colon cancer some years ago. What about parishes? One parish we know plans an Outreach Sunday during Lent in which parishioners break into groups and do outreach projects like cooking lunch for homeless, making sandwiches for homeless ministries and working on a construction project in church.
As we observe Lent voluntarily or involuntarily, let’s just remember that we aren’t doing it to imitate Jesus. Our sins are our own. Our temptations are not Jesus’, but our own. Taking time for our prayer life or taking on additional good works is important in Lent but not because it makes us more like Jesus. Even in good company, keeping Lent is for our own sake.
Julian Sheffield is Business Manager of Brooklyn Youth Chorus.
Dr. Deirdre Good is professor of New Testament at The General Theological Seminary, specializing in the Synoptic Gospels, Christian Origins, Noncanonical writings and biblical languages. An American citizen, she grew up in Kenya and keeps the blog On Not Being a Sausage.