Thursday 7 March 2019

Welcome to Lent!

I hate to mention the weather again, but, good news! Environment Canada says that this is the last week of winter and spring is coming. And if you can’t believe Environment Canada, who can you believe? Well … maybe now’s a good time to wonder about that and a lot more.

The seasons have certainly changed for most churches. It’s the season of Lent. Beginning on Ash Wednesday (which has its own story, too - ask a pastor) and ending the day before Easter, the forty days of Lent represent the time Jesus spent in the wilderness being, as the gospels say, “tempted by the devil.” It’s the season traditionally observed by Christian churches as a time of giving up something, of fasting and sacrifice in preparation for Easter.

Lent was intended to be a time of reflection and preparation based on three principles: prayer, fasting and giving to others.  For many, the focus of Lent became the “giving up” part, giving up of time, food and goods.  Originally this meant general abstinence and giving up festivities as well as food, but in later years there was often a more specific focus on giving up more obvious vices such as smoking, drinking, coffee and chocolate (okay, those last two are pretty much essentials …)

The goal was to identify with Jesus’ time in the wilderness, a time when, according to the gospels of Matthew and Luke, Jesus went into the barren desert, fasted for 40 days and was “tempted by the devil.” So Lent became a shadowy time, it’s church colour is purple, the hymns are all dark and sad, we focused on the struggle, the temptations and, most importantly, the fear of the devil and all the devil represents.

Okay. Can I offer a couple of thoughts about that?

Lent begins with Ash Wednesday, when many christians mark their foreheads with the sign of the cross in ash with a call to repentance and the words “remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Alright. Repentance and a sound reminder of our humble, fragile mortality. But you should also remember that earth contains the building blocks of life and a recent scientific survey offers proof that you - and the earth - are made of stardust. Literally. That connects us to the universe, too. And speaking of connections, the dust reference is meant to remind you of Adam and Eve. You could focus there on their “Original Sin” - I have thoughts about that for another time - but you could also remember that, like them, we are created in the image of God and therefore inherently good.

By the way, the word Lent comes from the Dutch word for “spring” and the German for “long.”  The name was adopted in the Middle Ages because the season occurred in the spring when days were getting longer.  And brighter. And warmer. And things were starting to come alive and grow.

You might also want to consider why and how Jesus goes into the desert. I think we’ve tended to focus on the hardship and temptations in the story, fearing the devil and perhaps even fearing our own ability to resist temptation and stand by our beliefs. We have this mental image of Jesus being lost in the desert, weak and alone. And there may well be times we can identify with that.

But I don’t think Jesus was either of those things and I think he went to the wilderness with a purpose. Look at how Luke, for example, frames the story: Jesus, fresh from his baptism by John, “was led by the Spirit into the wilderness” (Luke 4:1). And when the experience is over, Jesus goes into his ministry “in the power of the Spirit” (Luke 4: 14). Jesus was never truly alone: God was with him. The “devil” didn’t stand a chance.

In that same sense, we’re never alone either and that’s particularly important when it comes to the purpose of Jesus’ wilderness time and our own. I think Jesus went into the wilderness to find himself. Yes, sure, that’s become a cliche, but it’s also true. I was just reading Georgia Geary’s blogpost “Finding Yourself Through Travelling: The Cliché that Actually Happens,” and I think she’s right. I think Jesus certainly found that.

Fresh from his anointing with the Spirit and the voice of God claiming him as the “beloved,” here’s Jesus trying to figure out what that means and just how he’s going to go forward into ministry. So he wanders and he wonders, he faces some temptations, but some moments of revelation, enlightenment and empowerment, too. Sure, he confronts “the devil,” but maybe he talks to God, too. He’s hungry and thirsty at the end of it all, but maybe he’s been fed and refreshed, too.

So we could try that. Set aside some time - whether you take this on or give something up to do it - reflect and wonder, talk to God, tackle some issues and dust off some questions. Spring is coming and new life is on the horizon.