Greetings, SBT Readers!
Given the pandemic, is a Lenten "fast" the appropriate way to keep Lent? This question has surfaced in a number of publications, with the consensus being that finding life-giving activities may be more appropriate right now than depriving ourselves of the joys of life. This line of thinking corresponds to Is 58:1-9a, last Friday's first reading, in which the prophet Isaiah claims that God has no interest in sackcloth and ashes, but in this kind of a fast:
"Releasing those bound unjustly,
Untying the thongs of the yoke;
Setting free the oppressed,
Breaking every yoke;
Sharing your bread with the hungry,
Sheltering the oppressed and the homeless;
Clothing the naked when you see them,
and not turning your back on your own."
Perhaps the challenge for each of us is to find ways of implementing these corporal works of mercy from the confines of our own homes. Who are the imprisoned, the hungry, the oppressed, the naked, and the homeless whose lives we can touch even as we practice social distancing? Who are the friends and kin -- our "own"-- who need support at this time? Who are the people we encounter virtually or in-person who are bound by limitation, negativity, depression, and lack of hope?
How can our light break forth like the dawn in a season of darkness? What is the fast that will bring us closer to our God?
The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert,
and he remained in the desert for forty days,
tempted by Satan. He was among wild beasts,
and the angels ministered to him.
After John had been arrested, Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God:
“This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the gospel.”
Mk 1: 12-15
“At once, the Spirit drove Jesus into the desert.” The verb “drove” is significant. Following his Baptism, Jesus immediately headed to the desert, no doubt to process the meaning of what he experienced when he surfaced from the waters of the Jordan River. Mark describes a heavenly vision, the descent of the Spirit “like a dove” and that amazing voice from heaven: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (Mk 1:11). All this, of course, is to express the ineffable – that is, to try to convey that which is beyond words. Whatever happened to Jesus was so profound that words completely break down; Mark, writing some forty years after the event, tries to communicate what he has learned from stories circulating in the fledgling Christian community, using words and images that suggest a Theophany experience. There is no way of knowing what Jesus actually saw or heard, but all the evangelists describe the descent of the Spirit in similar terms – as a momentous happening that forever changed Jesus’ sense of self, mission, and purpose.
Following this pivotal moment, Jesus retreated to the desert, seeking quiet and solitude, a time to pray, a time to be. The Spirit was his only guide as he sorted through the implications of his Baptism, resisting temptations of the ego and clarifying where God was calling him. This was no mini-retreat or “weekend away,” but 40 days and 40 nights of immersion in the Divine Presence. Just as it rained continuously for 40 days and 40 nights in the days of Noah and just as the Hebrew people took 40 years to reach the Promised Land, so Jesus spent "40 days" in preparation for his ministry. Whenever the number “40” appears in the bible, we know that it means “a long time” of testing, inner change, and transformation; this is why our Lenten season is 40 days and why we, too, need our desert time.
We enter Lent to confront ourselves, our fears, and our deepest longings. Spiritual practices such as fasting may help us along the way, but, ultimately, it is our willingness to enter a process of transformation, guided by the Spirit, that is at the core of Lenten observance. We go into the desert of our own company, embracing quiet and solitude so as to gain new perspective. There, even as we commit ourselves to being "more spiritual," temptation surfaces -- especially the temptation to resist growth, to cling to the old, unhealthy patterns, and to pursue our own desires, unhealthy though they may be. Leaving our "comfort zones" is uncomfortable, especially when God calls us into a deeper intimacy that demands trust, surrender and a letting go of all that stands in the way of our union with the Holy One. Smeared by virtual ashes, are we ready for this journey?