Sunday, February 21, 2021

Lent I

Mark 1

9 At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

12 At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, 13 and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.

14 After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. 15 “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”

It feels like the longest Lent ever.

If we mark time according to the liturgical calendar, Lent ended on April 5th of last year—then Holy Week, then Easter, and so on. If you mark time by an emotional calendar, then maybe Lent never ended. Let me explain.

We begin the season of Lent with Jesus’ retreat into the desert, a symbol or metaphor for this 40-day season of withdrawal and solitude. Observing the season should include simplicity and self-discipline, and it should be reflective, which by its very nature should end up being penitential. I think you see the connection: The last year or so has been a time of withdrawal from others, with solitude, and forced simplicity, and the ongoing need for self-discipline. Even extra time to reflect remains a feature, with lots of “if onlys” and “I wish I’d known” thrown in for good measure. As I said, the longest Lent ever.

Of course, I should also note some of the good things. Walking is up, local travel (and spending) is up, time spent with immediate family is up, even creativity is up, from baking to mending to making do. One of the things I have come to treasure is talking with my father. He’s never been a phone guy, but now we spend time each day chatting and discovering new things about each other.

I don’t think he’ll mind if I give you one example, in this case a question that never occurred to me. There were a number of stories in the news about kids out of the classroom and the potential effect this might have on them, and it occurred to me that I didn’t know whether dad went to school while living under occupation. He was eleven by the time Holland was liberated, meaning these were critical years in his development. Anyway, he said that yes, they went to school through most of these years, except in times of crisis.

“Okay,” I said, “I have to stop you there. The country was occupied for over five years…how can you tell what’s a crisis in the middle of a crisis?”

Then he patiently explained the difference to me. And as he talked, it occurred to me that this also finds parallels in our experience. At times you settle into the routine of a new normal, maybe things ease or appear better, and then you are suddenly thrown into a new stage of the same crisis. Once it was a crisis, and now it seems a series of crises within a crisis.

Back to Lent—this Lent. We are barely a dozen verses into Mark’s Gospel, and Jesus finds himself in a crisis. Newly baptized, the Spirit sends him into the desert, where he faces the adversary. Mark, a man of few words, then tells us wild animals were with Jesus, and the angels tended to him. And that’s it. But we’ve read other accounts, by evangelists with less commitment to brevity, so we know the makeup of these temptations. Hungry, the devil brings bread; lonely, the devil offers crowds; uncertain, the devil offers him protection from harm. One writer says the devil bested God twice before this moment (see the garden, see Job) and it wasn’t going to happen again.* I’ll let Luke finish the story:

When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him until an opportune time. (4.13)

So the crisis is past, but as Luke foreshadows, there are more on the way. We could spend much of the next 40 days debating the opportune time Luke is alluding to, and all the ways the adversary enters the passage up to Jerusalem. And maybe we will. Whatever we conclude, it seems obvious that God’s desire to be with us has moved from gift to crisis in a matter of weeks, and we are left to reflect. And we are left to prepare.

Early on in this crisis I remember seeing a cartoon of a man in a tiny rowboat in the middle of a great storm. The caption is the man shouting into the storm, “I guess I finally have time to finish that novel!” Is funny because it’s absurd or is it funny because it’s true? Both, I suppose. So here we are, nearly a year into the crisis, entering a Lent within a Lent once more. Part of my job is to guide you through the season, so let me begin by saying that this is not the Lent you will sit down to write the great Lenten novel. And I’ll tell you why:

Very early in the pandemic the Italian newspaper Repubblica published an article by Dr. Paolo Legranzi, professor of psychology at the University of Venice. The title of the article (“Why I can’t read a novel while in confinement”) explains the problem. You see, in times of crisis, the human brain is designed to do one thing at a time. You can’t focus on a novel when you’re waiting for Dr. Tam to speak, or waiting for the latest numbers to drop.

But there’s more. Dr. Legranzi also points to the disconnect between the world of the novel (unless it’s a novel about pandemics) and the world we currently live in. I’ll let the doctor speak, strangely clear for something translated from Italian to French to English:

“Page 21 of the novel we are reading: the protagonist stands up and prepares to shake hands with his future great friend, but just then our reading instincts prevail and burst out like a cry: ‘Don’t do it, respect the social distancing rule, we can’t touch each other anymore!’”**

I recall spending weeks trying to push similar thoughts aside as we roamed Netflix and Amazon Prime. Seeing a crowd was jarring, or a hug, or even a simple handshake. It’s amazing how many shows are set in bars or restaurants, or around impossibly large dining room tables, or on crowded streets. When your brain can only do one thing at a time in a crisis, even watching television becomes a challenge.

Back to Lent, we’re already living a time of withdrawal from others, with solitude, and forced simplicity, and the ongoing need for self-discipline. So maybe this Lent we should simply spend more time thinking of others. Thinking of others as a form of prayer. Thinking of everyone who is suffering, both the people who are experiencing what we experience, and those who are having a very different experience—something we know we can barely understand. Let’s make Lent a time of solidarity and compassion, taken one at a time, of course.

May God be with you in this wilderness time, and may the wild beasts of worry be kept a bay, as you let the angels minister to you, Amen.

*Jack Miles

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