The Unholy, Holy Act of Lent

May 17, 2023 by  
Filed under Faith, Faith Articles

By Jay Weldon 
It seems as if Lent were a simple proposition: forty days of fasting until Easter, and we even get Sundays off.  It sounds simple enough, well, until you bring Jesus into the picture.  As always, he seems to complicate our otherwise simple lives.  St. Matthew’s Gospel presents us with a perplexing problem, one that makes me wonder if we could actually pray incorrectly. Why isn’t it enough just to do good?  Why isn’t it enough just to fast?  I usually think of Lent in those simple terms.  Can I really make it forty days without…?  Can I make myself really get up thirty minutes early for the next forty days in order to pray?  Can I…? 

And then I look to the Gospel of Matthew, seeing Jesus crowded by a multitude on the side of this mountain, but somehow looking straight at me.  He smiles in that kind, Galilean way, and says, “oh, you misunderstood.  It’s not just about you.”   Well sure, but part of it is about me.  Isn’t Lent about the way that I am dying to my old self, looking forward to the moment of resurrection?  Isn’t Lent about the time that I do whatever I need to do to refocus and re-center myself, so that I will be ready for Easter Sunday morning?  I’m the one who will chose to turn the radio off in order to confront the silence.  I’m the one who will eye the pork chops and say, “small veggie salad,” when I don’t want it.  I’m the one who will order water when I am in desperate need of a sugar and caffeine boost.  “No,” he reiterates, this time with the look that is sometimes followed by, “you brood of vipers.”  No, if praying and fasting and doing good were all just a means to an end, just to make you feel better about yourself, or some kind of self-help program, then you could do it however you please. 

Put up a neon sign on Peachtree to announce when you pray and wave at passing cars as you give the bum a dollar.  Pull your wallet out slowly so that everyone notices.  By the way, his name is Marcus.  He was abandoned by his father when he was seven, and his mother was killed on the job two years later.  He became a warden of the state until his eighteenth birthday, and now has been on the streets for 27 years.  But never mind that; if it were about the good you are doing, then maybe one of your friends will be sitting in Starbucks, staring out the window, watching you give him a dollar.  You’ll feel such pride, and then maybe you’ll get a free latte.  Hey, by Starbucks standards, you’ll come out two dollars ahead!  I guess everyone wins.”  Then he pauses for a second.  “You said you wanted to be my disciple.  We simply don’t do things that way.  We are not the kind of people who worry about looking better, or fast in order to make ourselves feel better, or pray so that people notice.  You said you wanted to be my disciple.  The rules have changed.  It’s no longer about you.”

I was coming out of a Braves game a few years ago.  My buddy and I had gotten tickets for free, so I guess we were feeling generous.  A man approached us in the parking lot and asked for a dollar for something to eat.  Because I don’t usually give people money directly, I offered to take him over to the KFC/ Taco Bell just across from the Turner Field entrance.  As we were standing in line, I was feeling rather pleased with my decision of generosity, and so I announced proudly to him, “get whatever combo you want.  You can even get all white!”  I probably spoke loudly enough for the people in the Lexus lot across the street to hear me.  (Maybe I thought one of them would offer me their car for my good deed.)  The gentleman looked me dead in the eyes and said, “I thought you were doing me a favor.  Bringing me in here and embarrassing me is not much of a favor.  All I asked for was a dollar.  If you had said no, at least I would have had my pride.  Thanks anyway.”  He turned and walked out.  I was stunned, bewildered, embarrassed, and so Jason and I resolved it the only way we knew how; we talked about how ungrateful he was all the way back to our car, got in and rode home.  But once the initial arrogance wore off, I began to slowly come to terms with the fact that he was right.  I wasn’t doing something for him as much as I was doing it for myself.  And this time it wasn’t the righteous teacher of Matthew’s gospel that corrected me, it was the Jesus we recognize more in Luke’s gospel, the Jesus whom we encounter sad and hungry, lying on the side of the road.  But the message was the same; it sounded synoptic indeed.  “You said you wanted to be my disciple.  It’s no longer just about you.”

So, what is this Lenten way of life?  First, I believe it is a way of refocusing our attention away from what we would decide to give up, exchanging it for a chance to be changed by the process.  Second, I suppose it is about death.  It speaks to the ephemeral nature of our existence, pointing to our common beginnings and collective destination.  Jesus speaks to us as a generation seemingly interested in propagating the belief that we are the centers of our universes, we can have it all, we will never die, and he hands us the burned palms from his own tragic parade and says, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  And then he smiles.  He smiles because he is always pointing us to the day of the resurrection.  He is pointing us to the other end of the dark tunnel of the soul’s journey, seeing a new heaven and a new earth in which we can live as resurrected people.  And even during the days of Lent, he is pointing us beyond the temporal world of these ashes into the bright morning of empty tombs, forgiveness of sins, resurrected bodies, and the life of the world to come. 

Jesus seems to always be changing our posture.  It’s not just the Pharisees who end up looking bad and the widows looking good, but all of us who become disciples are transfigured and relocated into a world in which the valleys are exalted and the mountains made low.  Our crooked ways are made straight and our rough places are made plain.  Even a life of re-birth is characterized by dying to ourselves so that we may become the likeness of God.  Even in our own seasons of intentional dearth, it is about more than our death and fasting.  With Jesus, there is never just…  Instead, he invites us to come along with him on a journey.  We are reminded that Moses’ forty years as a vigilante ended with the light of a burning bush.  Noah’s forty days of rain ended with rainbows and olive branches.  Israel’s forty years of wandering brought them to a promised land.  Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness brought about a ministry that has changed our world.  And now he invites us on this journey with him, to travel again through the dark nights toward Jerusalem, to an upper room, to a dark and empty garden, to a bleak hill outside of Jerusalem, and then to a pious Pharisee’s tomb.  Then he gives us the wink and the smile, the countenance teeming with the glimmer of resurrection.

I had a strange dream the other night.  Perhaps it was because my mind was preparing for the coming considerations of Lent and Holy Week, I had a dream that Jesus had been killed again.  This time, we all were filled with excitement.  We would be able to put to an end all the debate about the resurrection.  This time, we would be able to see with our own eyes the resurgence of life, place our hands in his.  But just like last time, I wasn’t there.  My alarm went off, my wife kissed me good morning, and I was back in a world where we practice Easter pageants during the days of Lent.  Our world is so different than that first journey to Jerusalem, that first triumphant entry, that first moment of betrayal, and those dark days of life without a Resurrection.  Imagine the thoughts of those first followers: “He said over and over again that he would tear the Temple down and in three days raise it up again, but now they have killed him, and the temple is still standing.”  There were no Emmaus Road encounters, breakfasts of fish on the beach, and lives of promise having seen and touched his wounded hands and feet.  The radiant promise of lives reborn was lost in that darkness.

There is no Resurrection without death.  That is why Christ has invited us on this long, terrible journey through a dark night.  If we are lucky, we will come face to face with our own ephemeral mortality.  We will pray in secret so that nobody knows but God.  We will give with such care that we keep our left hand behind our back, careful to make sure he doesn’t know and can’t tell.  And all of it will lead us to the unfair murder of a righteous prophet, simple human, and Son of God.   But we are not just sojourners on a path of self-denial; we are disciples who journey together with Christ in search of an empty tomb. 

And that, I suppose, is why the gospel tells us that it is so dangerous.  If it were just about us, and Easter morning with new dresses and wonderful music, then it may not matter.  But, if our dark journey takes us to an empty tomb…

Sources Referenced: Bible Mt. 6: 1-6; 16-21

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