Lent is for our sake, not Jesus’

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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.

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Julian and Deirdre,

Thanks for this. I'm intrigued by the very topic, since I had never thought there was more to the connection between Jesus' temptations and fasting in the wilderness and the Lent of the Church than an evocative symbolic root. And, yet, the collect and lectionary for 1 Lent could point us to a sort of blunt 1-1 "connection."

It's almost an inverse relationship, really, isn't it? Jesus' 40 day wilderness follows his baptism and seems to be, perhaps, a kind of preparation to follow through on it -- a sort of mystagogy boot camp, if you will. The Church's Lent, on the other hand is fundamentally a precursor to baptism, for that moment of identification as God's daughter, God's son. The reiterative nature of Lent which is the experience of most believers, revisiting baptismal preparation anew to strengthen one's journey, is still quite a bit different than the narrative y'all carefully describe.

The wastelands of the Genesis 40 rainy days (and nights) and the Exodus 40 years are additional touchstones for this time of fasting and reflection, in the same way as Jesus' wilderness time. Perhaps they can all stand as hints and reminders of what God can do with some time and space in our life -- renew Creation itself, deliver a promised land, raise up a Redeemer. What might God do in our lives, if we clear out a little space?

Andrew Wright

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deirdregood
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deirdregood

Laura Moore adds this comment on our piece (she is having trouble logging in to post):

Since Lent was originally the time when candidates for baptism engaged in their final preparation and formation, would a sustained reflection on the Baptismal Covenant be a fruitful way for parishes and individuals to "observe a holy Lent"?

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Eric Hinds
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Thank you Deirdre and Julian,

Your article prompts me to contemplate the parts of our tradition that see retreat to a deserted-even wild place-as a creative impulse. Time devoted to discerning where the Spirit might lead and what new action might follow. To be sure some false steps and temptations are possible, but Solitude in the sense that Tillich uses it "the glory of being alone" is a commodity that for most of us is in very short supply.

I note in Mark's Gospel that after the baptism of Jesus we get a mere two verses (1:12-13) to describe the 40 days in the wilderness. My humerous response as a parish priest as to why Jesus spent so much time alone is that he knew that public ministry would involve crowds with an insatiable appetite for contact! After healing Peter's mother-in-law, Mark makes mention that Jesus went to a deserted place, but the crowds soon return and by my count it is not until chapter 6 that retreat to a remote place is mentioned again. In the Celtic tradition, it is only after St. Kevin has spent many years in a deserted place that a community begins to develop around him--a monastic city that becomes a vibrant place of learning, pilgrimage, refreshment and peace.

Your piece has made me realize that I experience Lent as a time of great creativity. Each Lent I venture to offer a new teaching series and for the past few years I have participated in a Lenten Film group (this year's films are: Of Gods and Men, The Apostle, The Last Temptation of Christ, and Bonhoeffer: Agent of Grace). I find it interesting that Mark makes no mention as to what portion of the 40 days is devoted to temptation. Far from finding an exhausted Jesus emergeing from the desert, Mark presents Jesus as a person with great energy with a mission and ministry that steadily picks up momentum.

Strangely, as a result of teaching and preaching I do end up spending a lot of time alone during Lent. It is time spent for others as well as for myself--time inspired by Jesus and I agree not time spent imitating Jesus.

Thank you for making me realize how much I really have come to love Lent!

The Reverend Eric Hinds

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Richard E. Helmer
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Richard E. Helmer

Many thanks, Deirdre, for the further clarification, and again for the challenging piece! Your words bring me to the latter Lenten temptation to indolence implicit in the story of Peter identifying Jesus as Messiah, but then almost immediately discouraging him from the road to Jerusalem...

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deirdregood
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deirdregood

David, Richard and Drew, thank you all for your comments.

Richard,

We think that you support our argument in discussing archetypal temptations. But what ordinary Christians --priests and laity alike--tend to do is read archetypal temptations within the historical experience of Jesus. What Jesus experienced in temptation isn't something we can comprehend. The gospels of Matthew and Luke present emblematic temptations. Mark implies them.

We are much more likely to be tempted to do nothing.

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Richard E. Helmer
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Richard E. Helmer

Julian and Deidre:

Thank you for this challenging piece. I was most confronted by your statement, “But Jesus' own experience of temptation was not ours.”

I value the careful distinction you cut, but I also wonder how you might respond to an interpretation of Jesus’ temptations as archetypal (to employ a Jungian term) for the whole of the human family:

1. Turning stones into bread could be understood as reflecting our tendency to seflishly employ our power to meet our own fundamental needs for food and shelter, rather than to engage in the mutual (inter)dependence on others and, ultimately, our dependence on God.

2. The temptation to toss himself from the pinnacle of the temple is to test God's love, as in the very human temptation to seek proof that we have the love of God and others. “Do you love me?” (with aoologies to Tevye) is a fundamental question that can easily dominate our behavior and our spiritual lives.

3. Being tempted to grasp power seems to me to reflect our very human temptation to dominate and control others. This one seems to me to need very little explanation!

That Jesus rejects all three is an example for our Lenten journeys. While our temptations aren’t specifically Jesus’, they reflect his, and might we draw strength and inspiration from his example? At least, that’s an interpretation I feel compelled to draw from the interpretive lens of the incarnation. The risk I'm concerned with is that making Jesus’ temptations so far from our own might risk making his journey in the wilderness somehow irrelevant to our spiritual journeys – at least partially emptying this story of its potential power in our lives.

Am I being way too stuffy conventional here? Or is there another particular interpretation you are urging us against?

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A Facebook User
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A Facebook User

Excellent observations. Penance and spiritual exercises may indeed have their place, but you are right that they have nothing to do with Jesus' temptation in the wilderness (or the Garden for that matter). Involuntary or unplanned lent are much more transformative, in my experience.

-I've never been comfortable trying to link the 1st Sunday in Lent Gospel to lent or its observance. Jesus just didn't seem to be running a lenten study following a soup supper, but I never really want to knock the lenten educational program.

Andrew Kadel

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A Facebook User

This article makes me happy for at least three reasons.

First is that this kind of close examination of scripture (or the writings and recordings of the sages), using them as sounding boards, prisms, microscopes and lamps in a journey toward discovery towards enlightenment seems to me, their value. The contrast with this and a fundamentalist quest to blame, shame and and proselytize is refreshing.

I also liked the light it sheds on the way religious traditions are built of disparate, sometimes inaccurate facts then accepted as traditions and ossified into truth.

Finally, it felt like thinking shared, not dictate foisted. I always like that when I run across it anywhere, but particularly, when it pops up within the context of organized religion.

Signed David Patrick Stucky

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