Seems like Christmas was just a few weeks ago. Now we are celebrating the first Sunday of Lent. Tempus fugit! Time flies. We have emerged from the Christmas season celebrating the incarnation of the Christ, sojourned through a few weeks of ordinary time and now are entering a time of reflection and penance. Rohr reminds us that Lent can be a liminal desert experience for us if we use the time to reexamine our lives as Christians. BTW, liminal means threshold. Lent puts us on the threshold of baptismal renewal at Easter.
Jesus went out toward the desert. John the Baptizer was not in the Temple. He was out on the fringes, the margins. He wore funny clothes and ate bugs while calling people to a baptism of repentance in the Jordan. Jesus visited John and was baptized by him. The father affirmed Jesus and his mission, “You are my beloved son in whom I am well pleased.” Jesus suffered no father hunger wounds because he knew he was loved by Abba. Jesus then went out in the desert. Jesuit Larry Gillick, commenting on this reading, says that Jesus went into the desert to further define himself and his mission.
The Synoptic Gospels recount Jesus’ desert experience. We lose the full impact of what was going on if we do not see this in terms of the Book of Daniel. Walter Brueggemann gave four eye-opening lectures on the Book of Daniel during the January Experience in Progressive Christianity at St. Simons Island in January. Daniel is an apocalyptic book, a prophetic book which looks toward final destiny. Daniel has one thought in mind. How can Jews live their Jewish faith in a Hellenistic culture? We are dealing with a clash of values. The Torah, circumcision, and observance of the Sabbath set Jews apart from their Hellenistic neighbors. Being faithful to one’s religion in any culture is a challenge but Daniel managed to negotiate his way through life in a Hellenistic culture.
It does not take a rocket-logian to observe the early Church, before Constantine co-opted the true religion, and realize our challenge is the same as Daniel’s. How do we live our Christian faith is a secular, violent, war mongering, consumerist culture in America? All too often we are tempted to give in.
Enter Jesus in the desert. Jesus chooses to live in accord with the identity he understood from Abba’s blessing at his baptism. He further defined himself as one who would live over against empire and challenge the very roots of Rome and priestly cult. In rejecting the three temptations put by the Evil One, Jesus rejected possessions, prestige and power. He chose to live his Jewishness in the Roman Empire under the sway of the collaborating priestly class. He would go on to speak out for those who had been marginalized by the system. He would overturn purity codes by touching lepers and menstruating women. He would reject traditional family codes by redefining what true brothers and sisters are. He would reject the debt code and call for sharing of God’s gifts. He would reject the excessive practices of the viper Pharisees.
[A brief excursus on the Evil One, Satan, the Devil. We get into trouble when we literalize metaphor and symbol. We have concocted a little hoofed, horny red creature with a tail and called it Satan when in reality Satan is not a person but rather a symbol, a metaphor if you will for the evil that abounds in the world and which challenges the living of our faith. ]
Lent is the liminal time to ask ourselves how we live in the culture of our empire. All too often organized religion takes its lead from Constantinian Christianity and gets itself wrapped up in the trappings of empire. Yesterday’s reading from Isaiah 58 spoke of Sabbath. This is but one example. Our consumer driven culture bemoaned the Sabbath. Now the Sabbath is no different from the other days of the week. Brueggemann practices Sabbath. He enjoys a day of rest in the Lord. Unless we stand apart and take time to absorb God’s goodness to us, we get lost in the muck and mire of consumerism. Try not shopping on the Sabbath. Try not watching television on the Sabbath, even you favorite sport. When you think about it, one strategy used by Roman leaders was “bread and circuses (games).” The theory behind the practice was well thought out. If we give people enough bread and distract them with games we will own their souls.
There are many other ways in which we can stand over against empire. We can oppose endless war, Wall Street greed, nuclear stockpiles, environmental destruction for fossil resources, rank consumerism, the unjust treatment of the least among us, and the exclusion of others because of race, creed, color, national origin, or sexual orientation.
Once we understand who we are as baptized Christians, we are faced with daily challenges. All too often Christianity gets defined as motherhood and apple pie patriotism. Religion becomes sterile. Sometimes we even listen to sermons which are more in line with empire than the Gospel. At a recent ecumenical gathering, the speaker, a man who is doing much good through his Christian oriented project, could not refrain from bashing Muslims. When I challenged him via email, he defended his speech as speaking for Christ the only savior. That’s not my Christ and I hope it is not yours. I refuse to believe that a loving God expects all people from diverse cultures to follow only one path to salvation. There are many iterations of the divine and God has created every believer and non-believer in God’s own image. How could God want anything but the best for each creature? I will get off my soap box but the point is this. Vilifying people of other religions serves no purpose but to spread discord and hate. This is contrary to the Gospel. The Risen Cosmic Christ does not need us to tear down other religions in order to build Him up.
In conclusion, Lent is a liminal time. It is an invitation to take another step across the threshold and live our faith in culture which is often counter to Gospel principles. We have the opposition to abortion and euthanasia down as well we should. What about opposition to consumerism, war, drones, nuclear weapons, Wall Street e and banksterism, destructive pipelines, and institutionalized exclusion and hatred? Pick one and go for it with zeal! This is the fast that is acceptable to our God.
May I suggest reading Thomas Merton during this season. Once Merton understood his identity as a Christian monk, he understood his oneness with all of creation. From the center of his monastic cell, he spoke out against consumerism, racism, war and nuclear weapons. Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, one of his journals, would be great Lenten reading.