The season of Lent can be quite confronting as we are challenged that our usual way of being needs to be stripped bare and begun again at a deeper and deeper level. We are invited to bear witness to the passion of Jesus for us and so we will follow the story of his turning toward Jerusalem and all that waited for him there. We are also being invited to make the journey ourselves through death to life. It is not always a comfortable journey. Ritual and readings disquiet us. They can also refine and remake us.
Lent in the church begins with the ancient ritual of the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday which reminds us that our hopes and good intentions of last year’s Palm Sunday are now ash. If we reflect that the ash with which we are marked on Wednesday is made from last year’s palm crosses what sense do we make of the metaphor that the hope and excitement with which the crowds (and us) waved our palm fronds in anticipation of Jesus being a heroic leader have now turned to ash? What hopes and assumptions on our spiritual journey have ‘turned to dust and ash’?
Indeed in what ways, if any, is the sort of leadership that Jesus offered the first century world and ours a disappointment or bewildering? (When watching the evening news do you sometimes wish he would ride into town in a chariot rather than on a donkey and just make people do the right thing?)
And then the bible readings (Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Psalm 32; Romans 5:12-21; and Matthew 4:1-11.) invite us to companion Jesus into the wilderness. In every aspect we are being challenged to let go, to repent, to be stripped bare and to go to the next level.
It is interesting that we begin with the story commonly known as the Fall from Genesis. For some this is the story of original sin, although this is not a term found anywhere in the bible, it was an understanding that came several centuries later and has been persistent. I am one of those who does not find it a particularly helpful concept.
However it is a story that does seem to describe the heart of our failure or our fatal flaw as humans. That is, what tempts us and trips us up, and separates us from easy fellowship with the divine, is the inability to discern apparently good things from really good things. Let me explain a little more what I think is happening. In Genesis Eve and Adam eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. What could be a more worthwhile and uniquely human ability than to be able to know good from evil? An apparently good thing to desire and aspire to is our stumbling block. And we were warned, we were told not to eat of it, and yet how could we resist such an apparently good thing.
In some ways it is our most human attribute – that we can judge between good and evil. And yet it is our greatest and most persistent human failing, that having the means to judge good from evil we so often seem to make the wrong choices. When we ate of that tree we lost our child-like animal-like innocence and have ever since been bound by our quandary – what is good and wrong, what is self interest and other interest, etc. Choices between obviously good and obvious evil are easy. It is choices between things that look good for at least some parties and things that are truly good that is difficult and ties us in knots.
And into this quandary Jesus joins us in our shared humanity. Jesus’ struggle in the wilderness should, I believe, be read as real, not simply for our sake as audience. It is what it meant to become truly human as we say in the creed. He really did struggle with the issues and he really did come to right conclusions about his priorities.
Now Jesus was approximately thirty years of age at this point. He was already a fully formed adult human and given we think of him as one without sin we will assume that he was already making truly good moral and ethical decisions about his own life. But even Jesus had to be initiated into a deeper more demanding level of discerning the will of God, the way of choosing life - and it was a struggle.
My favourite contemporary theologian and teacher Richard Rohr says that Jesus struggled with the same temptations that everyone going into public ministry must struggle with. He says that they are temptations to the misuse of power – everyday power, religious power and political power. And each temptation looks good but tends to be about the lesser good.
Who would not want to turn stones into bread and feed the hungry? How is that not good? And yet Jesus discerns that there is a deeper hunger and that his task is to feed that spiritual hunger for the word of God.
And note that the temptation for religious power is expressed by Satan quoting Scripture. (Satan knows Scripture better than any Christian) How is it not good to quote Scripture? But Jesus responds that even Scripture, religious knowledge and power should not be used to raise oneself up and engage in forms of idolatry of the self. And the third temptation which came to Jesus again and again as his followers wanted him to be a certain type of leader was worked out in the wilderness for him when he was offered the known world to rule if he would just bow down and worship the fallen angel of light.
It seems to me that if we are going to engage with the very difficult topics of the banishment from the original Garden of Eden, of sin, and of temptation and trials in the wilderness then we need to not reduce these matters to formulas or to make the evil one a cartoon monster. Rather this is the human journey from animal like innocence to struggle to fully discern good and to choose life in all circumstances. The tempter is no less than a fallen angel of light and what tempts us is the dazzling appearance of good and power (which we would like to think we would use for good).
Even Jesus needed to go through this time of trial and refinement as precious metal being proved in fire so that he was strong and clear within himself about who he was and what he was here for. Without that clarity he may not have had the certainty or the courage to set his face toward Jerusalem when the time came.
If this process leave you with questions rather than answers, good. Regard them as questions to take you on a quest or a journey. If the answers were easy we would not need to go into the wilderness, again and again. Treat your questions as wise, if slightly irritating, travelling companions. But if your questions are too disturbing then do not bear them alone. Talk first in prayer to our Lord, of course, but also seek out your priest, or spiritual director, or a trustworthy person who has travelled this journey many times. Most often Lent is a season in which we have to work hard to find enough space and silence to hear whatever is trying to whisper to get our attention. But sometimes our lives are such that there are questions and concerns that feel like demons waiting for us when we quieten. If you need a trustworthy companion please seek one out. Even Jesus wanted his friends to keep him company while he wrestled in prayer with what was before him. Even Jesus needed the angels that came to minister to him when he had completed his struggle in the wilderness. Know that I and many in faith communities around the world pray for those journeying. There is a crowd of witnesses who surround you and me on our journey. May the Lord bless you and keep you safe.