I would like to talk about how very counter-cultural Lent is.
The season of Lent is not quite like any other in the year. Christmas is joyful – advent tentatively so. Pentecost is joyful, as is epiphany. Easter is unmitigatedly joyful, and the season after Pentecost is not without its joy – it’s certainly not anti-joy. And then there’s Lent, and Holy Week. These times in our year are not meant for joy, but rather, something else.
Now, these days, setting aside a time not to be comfortable, but to be uncomfortable is not strictly normal. Today’s society was built for comfort, if you have enough money. Our recliners are comfortable, our TV comfortably predictable – neither overly challenging, nor overly stimulating, but extremely anesthetizing. Our routines are comfortable. We have comfort food and comfortable clothes, comfortable friends and so many have a comfortable religion, and comfort is not a bad thing. I’ll go further and say this: comfort is a beautiful.
Comfort is a beautiful thing, though, because suffering exists – it is real. Physical suffering is real. People hurt, people dying, people starving, people living in poverty – extreme poverty, relative poverty, at or just above an arbitrary poverty line that has no real basis in reality.
Emotional suffering is real. People consumed by anger, by self-hatred, by anxiety, by fear. People in the midst of a difficult situation, knowing they must go forward and pick between several paths in front of them, but not quite knowing which is the best, and if they are willing to sacrifice even more comfort – people like Jesus.
After his baptism by John, after the clouds parted and Jesus was given a sign, a signal about which path he needed to take in his life, after these things happen, Jesus went to the desert wilderness outside of town and stayed there for a good long while. And he didn’t go there because it was comfortable. He went there because he was suffering. And in the desert, he engaged in the traditional actions of fasting and praying that were meant to clarify the mind and purify the soul, and thus – this is the most important part – and thus to be able to be closer to God, to be able to understand what God wished, and how it might be possible, and what to do next.
And so he fasted. And so he prayed. And Jesus found out then, there, something that so many of us have figured out as well. Sometimes we are better defined by what we are not willing to do, than by what we are willing to do. And I’ll go even further – when we’re still at that stage of our lives where we’re trying to figure out who we really are, and who it is we need to be, we have all had that moment of finally understanding who we are in a certain situation by what we aren’t willing to do. Jesus finds this out.
In the middle of fasting, he is offered food, but refuses, because eating isn’t the only thing that matters. Oh, he likes food just fine, and later on he’ll eat feasts with the right people and the wrong people, on the right days and on the wrong days, he’ll eat when others are doing ritual fasting and annoy them deeply. But right now, he’s fasting because he knows he needs to, so he is not distracted from it.
Then, in the middle of trying to get close to God through this fasting and prayer, trying to get close to God in order to understand God’s will, God’s action – which can be subtle or decidedly obvious, depending on the day, and considering the fact that he was still fasting and praying, we might infer that he hadn’t yet come to a satisfying conclusion about these things, in the middle of this, shall we say, relationship building exercise between Jesus and God, it’s pointed out to him that there’s a faster way than all this tedious prayer and fasting stuff. He could put God to the test, give God an ultimatum – answer me or I’ll throw myself off the cliff, then you’ll have to answer me, rescue me, or I’ll die. So there. But of course, this completely defeats the purpose of why Jesus was doing what he was doing. Ultimatums don’t build relationships, or at least, not healthy ones. Testing people’s loyalty doesn’t increase their loyalty – trusting people increases their loyalty. And so, Jesus refused.
And finally, after the temptation of food after a long fast, of quick answers during long days of searching prayer, Jesus encounters the last thing that would have been truly tempting. Power. In the days that followed, Jesus showed that he had tremendous power behind him, and we can argue until the cows come home about whether or not he was a deity, or a human, or both, or more than us, or just like us, or nothing like us, let us for the moment agree that he had an incredible power behind him, and if he had so decided he might have used that power for his own personal gain, rather than to preach and heal and teach a new way of being that has resonated down through the 21 centuries since. But before all of that, when he was still just a carpenter, when he was just 29 or 30 years old – when he was my age – when he was still just a follower of the old-style prophet, John the Baptizer, when he burned with an inner flame, but was still figuring out what he ought to do about that inner flame, when he took the time away from all the joy of life, all of the comforts, all of the friends and companionship to fast and pray and check in with God to see what he ought to do, an answer was presented to him: he could rule the world. And you know, given what we know about Jesus, if he had set his mind to do this thing, he just might have been able to do it – or die trying. We all know he was capable of that. But one thought of Caesar, the Roman overlord of the day – not like a president or prime minister, or King these days, where religion has some separation from state, not even like an Ayatollah who might have religious or political power, seen as an authority on both fronts – Caesar wasn’t seen as a religious authority, a pastor, or priest, or oracle. Caesar was seen as God Incarnate. Caesar was God. That may be hard to wrap our minds around today, but that was situation normal for them, and Jesus knew it. He might have the power, the personality, to be a strong ruler, but interestingly enough, Jesus in this moment refused to be seen as God, to be said to be on par with God, or to even style himself as God.
In the midst of a long time of prayer and fasting, Jesus refused to be comforted, Jesus refused the easy way out, and he refused the power to be on par with God, and in so doing, he began to define who he was, and his prayers were finally answered.
And that is Lent. We are encouraged to follow his example: set aside time to engage God, without becoming side tracked, to check in with God and see if we are on the path that is best for us. To engage in some sort of discipline that gets us out of our habit and mode of comfort, that jars our body, and thus our mind and spirit and soul out of our comfortable, habitual don’t-even-have-to-think-about-them-anymore patterns, and so be open to what God has to say. And sometimes, like Jesus, we will have the opportunity to define ourselves by what we’ll refuse to do.