February 17, 2013
“Lent 101”
Melissa Florer-Bixler

Lent may not be a season of the church year that you particularly look forward to.  As my daughter said wistfully as she went to bed the night of Shrove Tuesday, “oh well. It’s time for the sadness.” Lent certainly has a heaviness to it, one that often feels at odds with broader culture, which does its best to keep us distracted from sadness.

To make matters worse, many of us associate Lent with giving something up. We may think of it as the season of steely self-control. Over the past few days you’ve probably heard someone tell you how they are giving up chocolate, meat, cigarettes, or facebook for Lent.

And in those moments some of us have thought, “well good for you and your self-improvement project. No way I’m going to do that!” Others of us may have said, and I’m thinking here of you parents of young children, “I’m living in a perpetual Lent. You really expect me to give up something else?” For some Lent sounds like six weeks of self-hatred and guilt. Why on earth would we wish that upon ourselves?

But let’s give Lent another look. After all, Lent is one of the oldest Christian holidays. It was first mentioned in the second century, in the writings of Irenaeus of Lyons. Back then Lent only lasted a couple days. It wasn’t until 325 that the Council of Nicea put Lent officially on the church calendar. At this time it was primarily a time of preparation for baptism and the season was defined by fasting. Only one meal a day was eaten each day, in the evening. No animal products were to be consumed.

In the 600s Lent’s beginning moved from Sunday to Wednesday in order to match up with a very important number in the Bible – 40. This number is a big deal in the Old Testament. Forty is the number of years the Israelites wandered in the desert. The fasts taken by Elijah and Moses were also forty days long. For Luke, the fact that Jesus goes to the wilderness for forty days is the way we know Jesus is the continuation of the story of God’s work with Israel, not a brand new thing. It’s no wonder that hundreds of years later Gregory the Great would insist that the church celebrate Lent for forty days, starting with Ash Wednesday.

Over the next thousand years the restrictions on Lent became looser. At first meals were allowed after three in the afternoon. Finally in 1966 the Catholic Church declared that fasting was only required on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Since then people have become much more creative about the way they participate in Lent. As a result we’ve seen people being a part of Lent with thoughtful and intentional practices. We’ve come to discover that Lent isn’t “one size fits all.”

Jesus himself helps us to see how this is the case. In today’s Scripture we encounter that text that formed our Lenten tradition – the temptation in the wilderness. Our version of the story comes from the Gospel of Luke, were we get a lot of details about the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. As such, it is from Luke that we inherit the tradition of an extended preparation for the season of Easter. Luke reminds us that there’s something important about taking time to figure out who this Jesus is. In the same way, Lent helps us to be ready for the cross and, eventually the empty tomb. As Fred Craddock reminds us, “If one does not walk the road, the destination is reduced by half its meaning.”

And right here, at the beginning of that story, we find Jesus coming to terms with who he is. Just before Jesus temptation in the wilderness we get the big revealing of Jesus’ identity. In this scene John baptizes Jesus. As Jesus emerges from the water the sky opens and a dove lands on him. A voice comes from heaven saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” And from there, led by the Holy Spirit, Jesus goes into the wilderness.

Following Jesus’ example we can think of Lent as a mirror that we hold up to ourselves. It’s a season of honest encounter with who we are, what we’ve done, and the world we inhabit. In today’s Scripture the one holding up the mirror for Jesus is Satan. In his conversation with Jesus Satan confronts three points of Jesus identity: his social, political, and religious identity. Jesus, looking in the mirror of himself, must then discern what kind of mission he is actually on. What kind of Savior will he be?

The first question Satan asks concerns Jesus social mission. “If you are the Son of God,” he says, “command these stones to become a loaf of bread.” Satan wonders about Jesus’ ability to offer real, bodily salvation. Will Jesus use his power to miraculously provide for all the people of earth? Will he meet all temporal needs? Jesus looks in the mirror and says “no.” People require bread, but also more. Jesus knows his mission is about changing structures, upending kingdoms, transforming the ways we think of power and privilege. People can’t live on bread alone.

Next, Jesus must reckon with his political identity. Satan shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world. The state capital in Raleigh. The White House. The Hague. Parliament. “Just think,” we imagine him saying. “Think of all the good you can do with this power. Let me give you this. You could end poverty. You could cure disease. You could stop all the violence, war, and death that plague your world. All you have to do is worship me. Stop for a minute and think of the greater good.” And to this Jesus once again says, “no.” He sees in the mirror that it is the right worship of God that will animate his ministry, that the power to transform everything rests there, not in the things that the world considers powerful.

Finally, Jesus is brought to the top of the Temple, to ask the question of his religious identity. Satan tells him, “prove to all these people that you are who you say you are. Put them in a position where they have no other choice but to worship you.” And again, Jesus looks into the mirror and says, “no.” It will not be through coercion that Jesus brings each of us into the kingdom of God. The kingdom will come through something utterly incomprehensible to Satan, through death. It will be happen through the opening up of the kingdom to the poor and the outcast. God will exercise power in a new and unexpected way.

As we can hear, the first step in Jesus’ journey to the cross begins with asking the question, “who am I?” That too is the path we are on this Lenten season. We are asked to hold up a mirror to ourselves and to our world. Often times it will be painful for us to see what is looking back at us. In the Christian tradition that brokenness, the pain of that encounter with what reflects back at us is called sin.

Lent is an opportunity to put our bodies in a position to come to terms with that brokenness. It’s also a time to remember the fact that we have already been welcomed into the wholeness and healing of that brokenness. This is why Lent is sometimes called a “bright sadness.” As my friend Brad says, it’s about letting our bodies surrender what rules over us, from which Christ has already delivered us.

Traditionally the church has engaged in certain practices that help put our bodies in position to encounter this forgiveness, then to take hold of it and make it our own. The first is prayer, daily attention to the voice of God speaking to us. The second is fasting. Most of the time fasting does not mean we get rid of something bad, like yelling at our kids or drinking too much. By all means, be about that work all the time! But fasting for the church is usually from something that helps engage our senses, our stomachs, and our minds in the craving for the good things God provides for us each day. It’s a metaphor – a physical embodiment of the longing that is fulfilled as the sun rises on Easter morning.  The last traditional form of Lent-keeping in the church is almsgiving. We are invited to participate in giving away thereby showing the world the way God is bringing the kingdom into being.

While these are the traditional avenues for Lent-keepers, we also know that not everyone will benefit from these practices in the same way. Over the past week I’ve encountered some wonderful examples of how others are holding up the mirror of Lent, and how we might find creative ways to prepare our hearts, minds, and bodies for the coming of God’s kingdom in the resurrection of Jesus.

My friend Meghan is a writer, more in the essay genre, so for Lent she challenged herself to write a poem every day. She explains it this way – “Simone Weil wrote that prayer consists in paying attention, and this practice made me pay attention to the world around me, and to myself in it. Poetry made me do this more than other writing, because I am not a poet. It pushed me outside of the usual ways I use words, and I noticed things I would not have otherwise noticed. I found beauty in the wilderness. I found it, because I was looking for it.”

This year Meghan held up the mirror and what she saw was loneliness. Meghan is an introvert whose current status as a student allows her to get much deeper into herself and away from others. She writes that, “I can tell myself I want or need to be a hermit, but in times like these I can see how that spirals into loneliness and despair.” So this year Meghan is writing a letter each day of Lent, a real letter – the kind that require paper, pen, stamp, envelope, and time. She’s using this discipline, the time it takes, to push back against that despair that easily crowds in, by connecting with others.

My friend Jonathan is a community-worker who lives in an intentional community in Durham called the Rutba House. Jonathan’s Lenten practice involves holding a mirror up to the city he and I both live in. Recently our city council put restrictions on panhandling that effectively eliminate begging from our streets. During Lent Jonathan will be writing to our council members, encouraging them to lift the ordinance. He will stand with those in court who are being fined for violating the ordinance. Finally, if the ordinance is not lifted Jonathan will join others in an act of civil disobedience, an intentional breaking of the ordinance to beg on behalf of those in our community who cannot afford not to beg but also cannot afford the fine begging would incur.

For Jonathan, this is a way of walking on the long road to the Cross. He writes that, “This way of the cross is not comfortable for anyone, but we invite all of Durham to join us because we know that love is stronger than the powers of death. We look ahead to Easter, when Jesus rose from the grave. And we celebrate that this same Jesus is alive, walking among us in the world—even knocking on our door, asking to come in. “When you did it to the least of these, you did it unto me,” Jesus says.”

For me, this season I am coming to realize how much I have come to believe the lie of scarcity. Each day I find myself confronting the whisper of voices around me, and voices within myself that say there isn’t enough – not enough time, not enough money; not enough energy; not enough love to give; not enough influence to change the brokenness of your world. I’ve started to believe those voices, and that is a sin. So each day in Lent I’m making space to remember that there is enough, the God has promised me that there will be enough. Sometimes that means taking a few minutes just for me, and pushing back the guilt that accompanies this self-care. Sometimes it means reading someone else’s words so that the truth they tell gets into my heart.

How will you keep a holy Lent this season? What will you see when you hold up the mirror to yourself? There are so many ways to begin to prepare for Easter:

-For those distracting themselves from the difficulty of self-reflection by constantly listening to music or the radio consider a fast from NPR, or commit to listening to only one album for the entirety of Lent.
-For those who use social media to avoid the messiness of real relationships you might think about giving up texting for Lent, committing to only talk on the phone.
-For those who hold up the mirror and see someone overworked and exhausted, you might try committing to working only 40 hours a week during Lent.
-If you struggle with your self-image, if you have a hard time believing that you are fearfully and wonderfully made, do the thing God gifted you to do excellently every day. Play that piece of music you play perfectly. Sing that song that was practically written for you. Look back on that test that you worked so hard to ace. And then say out loud, “I am God’s beloved.”

How will you keep a holy Lent this season? Read T.S. Eliot’s Ash Wednesday poem every day? Write a daily thank you note? Call your state representatives? Spend five minutes a day in silence? Whatever it is, Lent welcomes you to a season of self-reflection, a time of holiness, as we put our bodies, hearts, and minds in a position to receive the forgiveness and healing that God stretches out before us.

God bless us and grant us a holy Lent.

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