So, welcome to Lent! For many of us, Lent is a time to contemplate all those areas in our lives where we fall short of the mark. It’s a time when we asses the implications of our mortality. It’s a time to give up candy, movies, or TV (this last on is recommended, by the way). It’s a time to walk around feeling sorry for ourselves for being such miserable failures in the eyes of God. It’s also an opportunity for some of us to see who is not observing Lent as we think they should.
My friends, many of us have these ideas about Lent. My friends, many of these ideas have nothing to do with Lent. I was raised in the old Roman Catholic tradition, before Vatican II, back when eating meet on any Friday was considered a mortal sin. For us, Lent was all about self-denial. If you enjoy it, if it makes you feel good, if it’s fun, stop doing it! Though not officially stated, as far as I remember, Lent was a time to make yourself miserable. Because, in the eyes of God, you were miserable. It was all your fault. Lucky for you, the church provides for this period of time to make up for it.
Now, I won’t take up your time with a long, detailed, historical and theological review and argument, but I will say this. I don’t buy it.
I don’t believe Lent is a time to beat ourselves up, or to weaken us, or to traumatize us, or to radicalize us. It’s not Christian boot camp, or Scared Straight for Jesus.
My friends, let’s try to reframe this. Lent is not a punishment, but a gift. It’s an opportunity to be more intentional about our lives, to come to terms with our mortality, to explore and, yes, to celebrate our mortality. It sounds counter-intuitive, but confronting and accepting our mortality can be liberating! It gives us a background, a blank slate, a way of seeing ourselves as ourselves. It’s a way to separate our individual self from the accretion of possessions and distractions with which we fill our lives, things which get in the way and keep us from knowing ourselves better, from knowing each other better, and, yes, from knowing and experiencing God better.
This experience of turning again to reclaim our selves, to reclaim the imperfect person we were created to be, is the true meaning of repentance. It’s a way of seeing ourselves without all the glitz and glamour, without all the false pride, and without all the self doubt and negativity we carry around. It’s an opportunity to see ourselves as God sees us;
imperfect mortals struggling to find a way to live without fear, and surrounded by the love of God. Simple, huh?
No, it’s not simple. We are from God and we will return to God. The problem is, we are hard wired for love, but most of our programming is for survival. Fear and doubt are part of that programming as they are necessary for our survival, but, if we’re not careful, they also get in the way and block our access to love.
In today’s reading from Genesis, Adam and Eve are living in love. They love themselves, they love each other, and they love God. God gives them all Creation, and they understand and see themselves as part of that Creation, as caretakers of Creation.
Then some outside programming is introduced, temptation. The suggestion is that you can be like God. You can have the knowledge of good and evil. This is pride. You no longer have to be a mere part of creation, you can overpower and control it. This is power. Now that you can see and determine the good and evil in everyone, you can make judgements about them. Since you are already like God, you are better than they are. You need to consolidate your power through possessions and security as a means of separating from and controlling those other people.
Pride, power and possessions. These are not part of our God-made selves. These are things and ideas we pick up as we go through life. The initial effects of pride, power and possessions on us are so subtle, so seemingly innocent and enjoyable, like eating an apple, that we do not recognize or fully understand what we’re doing. But the later effects become so harmful and so hurtful, when we find ourselves separated from that great garden God provides for us.
Pride, power and possessions. In today’s Gospel, Matthew tells us of Jesus’ preparation for ministry. It is a time of self-denial, a time of purification. A time for Jesus, himself, to become acquainted with and understand his own human weaknesses, his very humanity. But this story is also about us, about all humanity. All of us have weaknesses and are tempted by pride, power and possessions. By giving in to those human weaknesses, by accepting or succumbing to temptation, then pride, power and possessions turn into fear, jealousy and hatred.
Satan, the Tempter, wants Jesus to put Jesus’ own personal needs, desires and comforts ahead of anything else, even to the point of changing the very nature of creation. You’re the Son of God. You’re better than this. You don’t deserve to be so hungry. Let’s change these rocks into bread. Pride. You’re the Son of God. You have power over the Angels! You can command them to remove you from all this. Power. And the final, most insulting temptation, possessions. I can give you all this! All this, which already and comes from and belongs to God!
Please notice, all these temptations of Satan are false. He’s really offering nothing. Jesus is the one who needs to turn the stones to bread. Jesus needs to command the Angels. And as noted earlier, all of creation already belongs to God. The promises, the temptations of Satan are empty and false. They are a lie.
My friends, it is good to stop and examine our lives, to explore our mortality, to acknowledge the impermanence, the temporary-ness of everything. We come from God and we will return to God, taking with us only those gifts we gather through God’s grace, not our efforts. The gift of friendship. The gift of helping others discover the spirit of the living God within themselves. The gift of living, and helping others to live, a life of dignity and gratitude. We take with us God’s gift of love. Love for ourselves, love for each other, love for creation, and love for God.
We are mortal, and we are imperfect. God knows this for this is how God made us. It is because of our imperfections that we need to reach out to each other, and to be there for others, and to allow others to be there for us. We are incomplete by ourselves. We need each other to enjoy the wholeness of God’s love.
Will we make mistakes? Of course! We’re expected to. Will we give into temptation? Yes! God, through the human life and experiences of Jesus, is fully aware of the temptations and frustrations of our lives. God, through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, offers to take away our fear of temptation. We have God’s own blessed assurance that we are forgiven, that we can begin again. We are assured that we can turn again to a loving relationship with God. In our Vows of Baptism, we acknowledge and accept our imperfections, along with our human inclination towards temptation. We are asked, ” When (not if) you fall into sin, will you repent and return to the Lord?” And we answer, “I will with God’s help.”
So, what are you doing for Lent? More importantly, what are you doing with your life? Maybe this time of Lent can be used for examination and evaluation rather than for reprimand and recrimination. Maybe we can find new ways of being, with ourselves, with each other, and with God.
Avoid sin, avoid temptation. But do not spend your life being afraid of sin and temptation. Do not spend you’re life worrying about past mistakes, or what may happen in the future. Enjoy the present gift of God’s loving righteousness in your life. As Saint Paul writes, “The abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.” Imagine! A life wrapped in an abundance of grace and righteousness. And it’s already yours!
So, live the life God gives you. Share the gifts of love God gives you. It’s really all we have, and it is enough.