Weeks to Go: Surviving a Good Lent
Lent. Oh, for the days of giving up chocolate, crying on Good Friday, and buying a hat. Let’s dive again into why we are here, and what can we learn.
The OT lectionary passage for today (2 Kings 5:1-15b) is the story of a war leader, Naaman from Aram, a kingdom in what is now central Syria. He had a skin condition, perhaps not leprosy, but as good as in the social milieu of the ancient world. A captured girl tells him that in her land, Samaria, now the West Bank, he could be healed. So off goes Naaman with much wealth, and, after generally annoying the local king, the word spreads to Elisha, a man of God. Note that several political leaders have done little but squabble and been useless. In a foretaste of Jesus’ long distance healing (the Centurion’s servant in John, the royal official’s son in Matthew), Elisha gets word and sends the message to Naaman to immerse himself in the Jordan seven times and be healed. The river Jordan, where Jesus would be baptized by John the Baptizer.
Naaman is furious. Aren’t his rivers as potent? That is not the point. The point is obedience to the Jewish One True God through his holy man. When Naaman gives in, he is healed. But Naaman is a Gentile, and the Jews have always been a very tight knit group, bound by the Law and tradition. In the Gospel of Luke (4:23-30), at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, he, being a good Jew, is in the synagogue praying the usual liturgy starting with the Shema, the confession of faith saying, Hear, O Israel, God is One. You shall have no other god before you (Deut 6:4, which Jesus will teach in Mark and Matthew), and moving on through the scrolls of the law and the sayings of the prophets, and eventually to teach and preach. And Jesus brings up Naaman and the widow of Zaraphath, another Gentile, saying that while there were many Jewish lepers and widows, they were the only two saved by the great prophets, Elisha and Elijah. The implication being that the Jewish people would not be saved. And so Jesus is driven out to a cliff, where the righteous from their house of God plan to throw him to his death.
Jesus kept saying throughout his ministry that he did not come to destroy the Law, only open it to a new Way. The basis of that new way was to love God totally, to obey God totally, and (as the story unfolded) through him to love each other. Simple? Not so much if the community has a preconceived notion of their superiority. Jesus is pointing out who is in charge, and it is not the pillars of the synagogue (or church) or the Law. It is God, and God chose a couple of Gentiles. So the answer was to attack the messenger. Throw him out. Lock him up. Kill him. And eventually they did. The story of Naaman is not simple. It is a teaching tale, a catechism to be read in the synagogue, to be told by grandmothers to sleepy Jewish children. Remember, the Lord God is one, and only God can heal. Obey him, totally. So bringing up Naaman with the twist, that he was saved and that the priests, scribes, scholars just might not have so secure a place in God’s eyes, was a scandal, a blasphemy. And blasphemy is punishable by death.
Naaman knew he was in sin as a leper. Still he wouldn’t yield without holding on to his arrogance, his national pride, his station in life. We don’t know what happened to him after he was healed. Was he converted, a changed man? Or, satisfied with the results, did he return to his old life? The leaders of the synagogue were not aware of their sin. They were so sure that they were right. God was on their side. It said so in the Scrolls of the Law. We do that, too. Conservative or liberal, we hang on to the words of our scrolls. When the only Word that counts is before us, walking toward the Cross.
This is the one month a year where we are told to look inside, to beg forgiveness for things we haven’t even noticed. For each of us making way the path for the Lord is a little different. For some it is rooted in the world of work, school, family. Or social action. Or vocational renewal. Or a deeper call. But it always means taking up the Cross and following Jesus. I believe it is worth it, more that all the riches a camel can carry to the Jordan River.
Kyrie Pantokrator. Lord and Ruler of All. Canticle 14, suggested for Mondays in Lent, is attributed to Manasseh, a sixth century BCE king in northern Judea. The canticle, probably 2nd or 3rd century Greek, is a prayer to the God of the Patriarchs of Israel in humble petition for forgiveness of sin.
Pray it, slowly, and accept the premise that we don’t know how often we turn from God. Can we say, O God, you promised mercy, but I am not counting on a contract? I am confessing that my sins are more than the grains of sand. I am not worthy even to ask. I am a mess of foolish humanness, and I don’t know what I am doing most of the time, and what consequences my doing has on those around me, in the web of human chaos. I bend the knees of my heart. I prostrate myself before you. Please, hear me. “I have sinned, O Lord, I have sinned, and I acknowledge mine iniquities: wherefore, I humbly beseech thee, forgive me,”
Oh, yes, happy Lent. But take it in. Acknowledge it, not in some sort of Christian guilt trip, but in recognition that life in the world is a tangle of messy and opaque interactions, most of them bruising, and that we are not called to be hermits so we are stuck with it, and navigating the Way isn’t easy. It is not enough to make sandwiches for the homeless or march for immigrants. Those are Godly acts of mercy. But they aren’t repentance. Even if they are done to expiate some wrongdoing, they won’t. Only true confession, turning to God, and it can hurt, seeing yourself as God sees you, can bring full reconciliation and repentance. And in turn, conversion of heart. And absolution, by priest, or church, but ultimately by our loving Lord God.
Lent is a time of ambiguity, of the fear of God, of sorrow, of feeling lost, but also of hope, waiting for the glory to come. We have weeks to wait, to inspect our lives, to forgive and ask forgiveness, to turn to God, to follow Jesus to the Cross, to the bitter end. Keep going. We aren’t done yet.
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is a parishioner at All Souls Parish, Episcopal, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.
Image: By Photo: Andreas Praefcke – Own work (own photograph), Public Domain, Link