We celebrated Mardi Gras. Then midnight came, and washing up the parish dishes and frying pans and whatever pancakes fell on the floor and got trampled in. And the next morning we were marked with ashes, because we are all dust, and will return to dust. Until He comes again and makes all new. And we may still be wobbling around between a fast of deprivation and a fast according to Isaiah, a fast of giving comfort, food, clothing, care to those who need (Isa 58:1-14). Or maybe a little bit of both? Lent is an unsettled time, and unsettling time, as well it should be. We are experiencing, or should be, forty days walking to the Cross. A week that ends with Jesus gone, dead, buried. A week that ends with only reserve Sacrament, and when that is gone and if he doesn’t come back, what then? The last thing we want to be doing in Lent is celebrating the Resurrection. Because without that walk, pain, fear, emptiness what will we know of the Resurrection? A happy ending? This is not the movies. This is life, eternity, God. And we begin with a story told every first Sunday in Lent, Jesus in the Desert, in a Wilderness, a perfect place to be tested, tempted. It is a good thing there are three of them. This year, Year C, we get Luke 4: 1-13.
We can glean from the episode of Jesus staying over in the temple at age 12 that he was always called to study the Law. But except for the hereditary priestly class most local teachers and rabbis fit the pattern we see in St. Paul. You had a day job and were a non-stipendiary teacher on the Sabbath or at the local religious school. Jesus was now about 30, the age when a man could hold authority, and read and preach in the synagogue. And we know that Jesus has just been baptized by John, and God’s voice announced him as his Son. Is this when the fullness of his calling burst in on him?
Jesus was filled with the Spirit. Jesus felt the call to go on a long and hard retreat to discern what had just happened to him and what he was to do next. The desert, and hunger, and the demons which come when you wrestle with God, so, yes, 40 days, and he was hungry, tired, dehydrated, and, given the hot day and cold night cycle in the desert, worn out, depending only on prayer and faith in God, to see him through. He was in discernment, a place many of us know well. Who am I? What does God want? Holy orders or secular vocation, when called by God so strongly that nothing else matters you feel lost and clueless. The first order of business is to open yourself to God for everything. Sounds like Lent to me.
What is the wilderness for you? I have spent a lot of my life in the wilderness. The current understanding of the Gospel focuses on preaching and teaching that we are one Body, a kind of Lego interpretation of the Pauline description of separate roles and vocations that make up a church community. And with many traditional family structures disappearing, intentional communities have their appeal. And they last for a while in Christian charity until someone forgets to take out the garbage or interrupts a conversation or doesn’t feel like joining for every outing or objects to the choice of music, and the words of Jesus about loving your enemy are forgotten in the rage of resentment over petty things. Love can be a bond so strong that it can support a Christian in a concentration camp or so fragile that a tiny power inequity in a parish or family can kill it. Being fed, emotionally as well as with bread, power, recognition, those are the vulnerabilities which we all face. And the wilderness is always so close. In many ways I like the wilderness, wrestling with my own demons, wrestling with God. It is honest. It is clean.
But for Jesus, the wilderness not only was the place of discernment of his fully realized role in salvation, but it was also his first step towards healing the wounds of the world by living them. And even before the Five Wounds of the Cross, he had plenty of wounds of his own. Rejection by his family, his home, the Temple elite. And yet he heals. And yet he teaches us to love our enemies, to embrace his Spirit even when the emptiness of Lent isn’t satisfied by liturgy and spiritual practices. Lent is life without a net. And Jesus is always the safety net. Someone once asked would it have been the same if he had been run over by a bus, or in his case a chariot? I don’t think so. He suffers the intentional worst that his society can offer so that he knows the worst that we will suffer at the hands of each other. The wilderness becomes a kind of mirror of the Cross. He will go to the Cross without material wealth or support, without social or political power, and without a magical fix. And he calls us to take up our Cross without any of those things, only faith in the Father and trust in his name.
Perhaps there is teaching from the answers that Jesus gives Satan. They are all from the Law, the Law which he has come to overturn from a rigid system of right and wrong behaviors to a Law of compassion of one sinner for another, for a deep love in the knowledge that Christ’s Spirit lives in all of us, and to hate one another is to reject God himself. “One does not live by bread alone.” In Deuteronomy 8:3 the Israelites are exhorted not to forget their 40 year pilgrimage to humble and test them, not to forget their liberation from Egypt, not to forget the manna, all of which were made by their Lord and God. Remember God, not earthly bread. And remember it is God who makes us free. “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him,” from the Shema Yisrael, the confession of faith (Deut 6:4). A fuller text reads, “The Lord your God you shall fear; him you shall serve, and by his name alone you shall swear” (Deut 6:13). Swear not by the idols of this world, wealth, power, prestige. Only in submission to the Holy One is there salvation. “Do not put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah (Deut 6:16).” The reference to Massah reminds us of the Israelites’ lack of faith in begging for water from Moses. Jesus is the bread and also the water of life, and we can call upon his name. These are the teachings that will get us through our own wilderness.
The three tests – need, power, and ego – all are stumbling blocks in seeking God. God alone can fulfill our needs, holds power, and grants approval. Whatever God wills for us, these 40 days of Lent are a good time to turn anew to God. Use these days well and have a good Lent.
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.