Sunday, April 02, 2006

The Wilderness of Lent

I'll be making a Lenten retreat with some of the diocesan clergy for the next few days. We haven't talked too much about Lent here at Jake's place this year. So, I thought I'd leave you a brief Lenten reflection to ponder while I'm gone:

Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan ... And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan (Mark 1:9-13).

I have lots of problems with this passage. First of all, it seems to have things a bit backwards. Jesus is baptized, claimed as a member of the household of God, and then goes through a period of preparation or purification.

Shouldn't the preparations be made first, and then the baptism? Before an adult is baptized, they prepare themselves. Before we receive communion, we prepare ourselves. Before ordination, the ordinand traditionally makes a retreat.

Just possibly, we have it backwards.

Maybe we need to remind ourselves that there is nothing we can do to earn the sacraments. We cannot earn the right to Holy Baptism, Holy Communion or ordination. These are free gifts of grace offer by God through God's Church. They are given freely. But we do need to keep in mind that the sacraments are a means by which we receive God's grace, and once God's grace gets involved, things are going to change in our lives. Maybe we need a retreat after we have acknowledged the reception of God's gift of grace. Maybe that's when we need to stare in the face the new thing that God has done in our lives.

Jesus is driven by the Spirit into the wilderness. He didn't go by his own volition. The Spirit of God drove him, forced him, to undergo this forty day fast. Such aggressiveness on the part of God makes me nervous. What do we do with that? It appears that God was still preparing Jesus, and time was of the essence. Jesus had more to learn before he would be ready for his ministry.

Seminary was not the wonderful experience I had expected it to be. There is a point when almost every seminarian has a crisis of faith. Most seminaries won't admit it, but I think that its built into the process. The seminaries want their students to face their own doubts, fears, and inadequacies while still in school, and not while serving in their first parish. At times, seminary did seem like being driven into the wilderness by God. I didn't like it, but I wouldn't have missed it for anything. Sometimes, God can be rather insistent, whether we like it or not!

Jesus is driven out into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. If God drove him out there, then Satan is functioning as an agent of God. This is what we also see in the book of Job. Somehow, we have to get a handle on the reality that Satan has to be under God's authority. This brings up lots of problems with evil in the world, but that's another message. This passage refutes the idea that there are two powers fighting it out somewhere, and that there is some danger that God might lose this bout of cosmic fisticuffs! There is only one God of all.

The season of Lent, the forty days preceding Easter, is a call for each of us to enter the wilderness. The wilderness is a frightening place. We have no map. We don't know what we'll encounter. But we are driven into our own wildernesses just the same.

God calls us to enter those strange places in our lives, the places we normally avoid. God calls us to look into our hearts, and seek out those unexplored wildernesses, and begin to learn who we really are.

Lent is a time to expand our horizons, by charting the unknown wildernesses in our lives. We are called to stretch our understanding of God, and to try on new ways of responding to God. Lent is a time to enter the wilderness within our relationships as well. It is a time to seek reconciliation with those from whom we have been cut off for much too long.

God is pushing us out of our nice, comfortable lives into the unknown of the wilderness. Let us search out those dark places within our hearts, and allow God to heal them and bring them into the light. Let us allow God to stretch us in the wilderness and reveal new ways to respond to God's love with acts of mercy. Let us enter the wilderness with joy, knowing that we will emerge with a tempered heart desiring reconciliation with God and one another.


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