We made eye contact with those who walked by, offering a warm smile and friendly greeting. For those who slowed or paused, for even a brief moment, we would offer ashes and a blessing. We interacted with a wide variety of parishioners, neighbors, and spiritually curious folks who recognized something sacred in the ritual.
For many who come to receive ashes, there is a desire to reground themselves. Our day to day lives are already full of stress; and our society pressures us to live life at an increasingly impossible pace. All the while our world can feel like it is falling apart. More climate disasters; more racism; more gun violence; more of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. More illness; more caregiving; more strained relationships; more unhappiness. Is it any wonder we might begin the season of Lent feeling disoriented, disjointed, and drained?
One of the folks who came to receive ashes noted how much he needed this Lent, given all that is going on in our world. It warmed my heart that he could so clearly see the goodness of this season; the way Lent calls us to reconnect with ourselves, God, and one another. Lent is a time to recall God’s dream for this world and recommit to working in concert with God and one another to help bring that dream into fruition.
In the early Church, Lent emerged as a final season of preparation for those about to be baptized. You may remember from our teaching sermon on baptism, that in the early Church, baptism required an extensive, three year period of study and preparation, which would culminate in baptism at the first cockcrow on Easter morning.*
Lent emerged as a communal season, where the entire Christian community walked alongside those preparing to commit their lives to Christ.** It was the Church’s way of telling those about to to be baptized: Walking the Way of Love is not something we do in isolation. It is a communal act, done together in solidarity.
Over time, Lent also began to address our need for penitence. A season where we are invited to face our own brokenness as individuals, as communities, and as a society. In order to stay healthy and grounded in our faith, we need to see where things have gone awry; repent; and turn back towards God’s dream of Love for this world. It is why parts of our liturgy this Lent will call our attention to the corporate brokenness of our world, especially with regard to the climate crisis, gun violence, racial and economic injustice. It is also why so many of us take on Lenten disciplines. We want to reconnect with our why; that ultimate reason we said “yes” to a life of faith in the first place, and continue to say “yes” every time we renew the promises we made in our baptism.
This is hard and important work. Yet engaging in the work is what will bring transformation, joy, and renewed life. Together, with God, we can do the work. We can heal what has been broken. We can rediscover and walk the Way of Love.
In today’s gospel lesson, following Jesus baptism, the Spirit led him into the wilderness. Having just finished forty days and nights of fasting, he was famished. It was then that the tempter, or ‘devil’, came and spoke to him.
I sometimes get distracted by the word ‘devil’, as my own imagination runs wild. Yet when I sit with the meaning behind the word, I imagine the tempter is really Jesus’ own inner critic. We all have that inner voice that judges ourselves, usually much too harshly. The voice distorts the truth, distracts us from God’s love, and encourages us to put our own self-interest before the greater good. It offers all sorts of quick and easy ways to numb the pain.
Shortcuts to bypass suffering. Though in truth these usually lead us to more pain and suffering, by avoiding the very work we needed to engage with in the first place. That hard work that Lent calls us to journey through.
In the gospel, Jesus faces three temptations, and each time, he leans on the Torah. For the Jewish people, the Torah was the embodiment of God. By responding to each temptation with a quote from the Torah, Jesus is entrusting all of his faith in God.
First, Jesus is tempted to turn stone into bread, to use his own power as God’s Son to alleviate his own suffering. Jesus leans on his faith.
Then, he is tempted by the idea of testing God’s fidelity -- surely God will catch me if I fall, but let’s just test God on this one. Instead, Jesus again leans on his faith. He knows deep down there is no need to test God’s fidelity. God is within him.
As Theophilus of Antioch would later write,
“God has given to the earth the breath that feeds it. God’s breath vibrates in yours, in your voice. It is the breath of God that you breathe.”***
God is always with us.
In the final temptation, Jesus ponders for a moment what it might be like to have all the power and wealth imaginable, if he were to put his own self interest before all else. Again, Jesus leans on his faith, affirming that his only interest is worshiping and serving God.
The story ends with the tempter, those loud internal noises, vanishing, and angels coming to wait on him. Maybe that means Jesus had a delightful meal, and was fed grapes by cherubs. Yet what I imagine this to mean, is Jesus found an inner peace and calm that soothed all the questions, doubts, and insecurities. That feeling of peace that surpasses all understanding. God's very breathe within him. He found this peace by remaining faithful, leaning on God at each and every turn.
This Lent, we join Jesus in the wilderness. There we find more space, less external noise.There is something about the wild - ness of the wilderness that helps break us open to encounter the sacred and mystical; to discover truth; to remember our why. This Lent, we each have an opportunity to reflect on where our self-interest may have distracted us from practicing our faith. To reframe the messages of our inner critic, by asking ourselves, do these messages line up with what we know about God? Do they line up with what we know about God’s abundant and unconditional love for each and every creature?
I intend to embrace the wilderness of this Lent by slowing down. An act of quiet resistance. By taking the time to be with God each day and listen. One of the ways I am paying closer attention is by making three lists each day.
In the first list, I write down five ways that I practiced self care the day before. I do this because it helps quiet the inner critic, and because when I take care of myself, I’m better able to show up for the people in my life. I am better able to strive towards God’s dream for this world.
In the second list, I write down five ways I was mindful in my work and relationships the day before. I do this because life is precious and short, and our relationships matter. And I want to communicate my care and appreciation for those I walk beside.
Finally, in the third list, I write down five things I am grateful for. I do this because we know gratitude is almost magical in its ability to help us reframe our hearts, souls, and minds. Recently, I heard paralympic Blake Leeper describe the importance of his gratitude list, and it convinced me to resume the practice again. He said:
“I do my gratitude list, especially when I’m having my bad days, where I get a no, or something just doesn’t go right, and I feel myself going down that hole of negativity. I get a pen and paper out and I work my gratitude list. I write all the things I’m thankful for. It’s easy to do it when you get that big check, or everything’s going right, or your boss just gave you a promotion, like it’s easy to talk about all the things you’re thankful for. Do it when you’re pissed off. Do it when you're mad. I mean do it when you have tears rolling down your eyes and you’re just full of emotions, and you’re trying to find the strength to keep fighting. Do it then and see how powerful and strong it can truly be.” ****
This Lent, I invite us all to do some reflecting:
* Commentary on the American Prayer Book by Marion J. Hatchett, pages in order of reference: 253,
** Daily Prayer for All Seasons, pg. 60
*** Theophilus of Antioch, Three Books to Autolychus, I, 7, cited in Oliver Clement, The Roots of Christian Mysticism, trans. T.. Berkeley (London: New City Press, 1993), 7.
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