A Lenten Reflection at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, February 18, 2017
Readings for the First Sunday of Lent: Genesis 9:8-17; Psalm 25:1-9; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15
“Open our ears, O Lord, to hear your word and to know your voice. Amen.”
I’d like to begin with a little story from when I was in second grade. I was having great difficulty with my homework. I’m pretty sure it was word problems in math. Math is one of those subjects I’ve never been good at. Literature, history–fine. But when it came to numbers, to measurements and quantities and the complex abstractions of second-grade arithmetic, I was just hopeless. My brain seized up. My intellect put up barriers. It might as well have been Greek.
My Dad, who had completed his schooling in the U.S. Navy, tried his best to help. There had been a crisis, you see, that made it necessary for my parents to take a more active interest in my learning. Our next-door neighbor had discovered a strange infestation in the boxwoods in front of her house. There were these curious, tightly balled up wads of paper in the inner recesses of the shrubs. When these paper wads were painstakingly unwound, the name “Matt Melton” appeared on them. Somehow my homework, notices of misbehavior and other important documents meant for my parents’ eyes…and signatures…had mysteriously migrated to those shrubs. I still have no clear memory of just how they got there… Anyway, this had prompted one of those rare visits to our home by the teacher, and yes, that sent some serious shockwaves around the house.
So here was Dad, trying really hard to help me with my homework … only it was just not happening. Dad would read a bit, have me read a bit, and then say, “So that means…” and I would sit there, thunderstruck, wide-eyed and mystified, with no clue what the answer might possibly be.
I don’t remember how long Dad sat there with me, but his tone began to grow more and more frustrated. And, of course, that only locked my brain down more. If there had been any hope when we sat down, the slightest ember, it was snuffed out entirely by the certain knowledge that Dad was getting upset.
He asked me for the umpteenth time, “So … what’s the answer?”
I stared at the page. The grey ink started to blend together, making pretty patterns on the page. Not words.
“I don’t know,” I said.
They say we have no memory of pain. In this case, mercifully, that’s true. I do remember very clearly my body rising into the air, like in the rapture, only instead of going to heaven, I found myself bent over Dad’s knee, with three sharp whacks administered to the seat of learning. Then, I was deposited – plop! — back into my seat, and I heard the door slam as Dad stalked out of the room, cursing under his breath. (He was a sailor, after all.)
I was too stunned and breathless to even cry. I think a couple of tears sprouted, but mainly I just sat there, chest heaving, trembling, eyes down on the page. And then a miracle happened. As I stared at what had been ink patterns a moment before, words that meant something … began to emerge. Then phrases. Then whole sentences. Numerical relationships suddenly sang out to me, like characters from a musical. My pencil, which had been paralyzed a moment before, found the page and began to scratch out answers, first tentatively, then confidently. It was as though the gift of tongues had been bestowed upon me. I was first surprised, then excited. Nothing like this had ever happened to me before. And then, in a few short minutes, I was staring down at my completed homework. I got up, burst through the door and said, “Dad! Dad! I did it! I got it! I really got it!”
And then I added. “It was that spanking! You’ll have to do that more often.”
I’m not trying to make any recommendations on how to educate our kids. You might wonder why the first Sunday of Lent might lead me to think of this incident. I’ll explain.
In our Gospel reading today, we get one of those broad-stroked sketches we encounter so often in Mark. What we see, swiftly told, is the baptism of Jesus by his cousin John, followed by Christ’s forty days in the wilderness, a time of fasting and prayer … and temptation … that prepared him for his ministry to follow.
For many of us, Lent is all about the self-denial, about giving something up in order to reinforce to ourselves, and maybe to others, that we are performing our Christian duty and participating in Lent. In recent times, we have come up with a lot of creative versions of the Lenten “fast,” surrendering anything from cookies to Coca Cola for forty days. And that really is all to the good.
But if you’re like me, you may get intimidated by the Gospel passages that talk about Jesus going into the wilderness for forty days, fasting the whole time, and wondering if being Christ-like means doing the same thing. Certainly, plenty of Christian traditions over the years have thought so. In fact, some of them have gone Jesus one better and decided they need to live like that all the time. That’s a lot of pressure on the rest of us who try to live in this bright and beautiful world with all its attractive features, not to mention the great food.
Historically, Lent came into being in the early Church to prepare new converts for baptism at Easter. As Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury explains, “It was believed that self-denial, fasting and extra prayer as it were, limbered you up, like doing exercises for some great race; it made your more spiritually mobile and agile…”
Medieval churches got into Lent by toning down their ornamentation, removing decorations, changing out all the cloth hangings for sackcloth, what we know as burlap, as a visual act of contrition. Priestly vestments featured purple, a sober color associated with judgement.
I’ll be the first to chime in here and say that I have a serious problem with anything that smacks of legalism. It rankles me in ways that are hard for me to explain. (I mentioned something along those lines to a former Catholic priest once and he offered to pray for my spirit of rebellion. I said, “No thanks.”)
What’s all this for, we might ask? Do such disciplines work? Do they achieve anything other than the kind of show we read about on Ash Wednesday, the sort of empty public displays that Jesus condemned by saying, “They have their reward”?
I think the answer to that is contained in today’s readings. None of the readings focuses on the self-denial part. The focus in Genesis is on the rainbow of promise after the Flood, in Peter on Christ the Victor over death, in Mark on the new mission and ministry of Christ. Again, what Rowan Williams said along these lines is helpful, “The word Lent comes from the Old English word for Spring. It’s not about feeling gloomy for forty days; it’s not about making yourself miserable for forty days. It’s not even about giving things up for forty days. Lent is Springtime. It’s about preparing for the great climax of Spring, new life bursting through death, and as we prepare ourselves for that, what motivates us, what fills the horizon, is not self-denial as an end in itself, but trying to sweep and clean the room of our minds and hearts so that new life will have room to come in and take over and transform us.”
In other words, the focus isn’t on the three whacks to the backside, it’s on being able to do the math.
For many years in my efforts to be a better Christian, I strove under the impression that knowing God or being closer to God was all about an inner sense of spirituality, the achievement of some sort of personal righteousness. And things like fasts and spiritual disciplines were about reaching for some internal, happy spiritual state free of doubt, free of sin, free of defeat and therefore full of victory and the glorious self-affirmation you hear promised by so many today.
But now I wonder if maybe I had it all wrong. Deacon Art Bass sent me a terrific item that suggested some interesting fasts for Lent—fasts from hurtful words, anger, worry, bitterness and selfishness, among others, so we can embrace kindness, patience, joy and compassion. It seems that Christ himself was no mystic guru who stayed in the desert after his time of fasting. He came out of the desert to minister to people, to proclaim the good news of God, to heal lepers, to give sight to the blind and hope to the hopeless. Might Christ’s example suggest a practical application for us when it comes to refocusing our priorities?
A time of repentance through self-denial is just a whack to the hind quarters of our self-indulgence, something to help us focus our attention away from ourselves, outward, toward God and toward our neighbor. We don’t need to be flagellants to achieve this. A flagellant is someone who whips themselves painfully in order to mortify the desires of the flesh, but in the Middle Ages, some flagellants were infamous for burning down the houses of those who didn’t take things as seriously as they did. Self-denial isn’t meant to make us holier than anyone else. It’s meant to make us aware of the needs around us. It’s meant to give us new understanding of what’s happening around us, and to empower us to speak the right words and to do the right things. And we have never been in more need of such empowered people, have we?
By way of offering a plug for Father Joel’s upcoming series on Michael Mayne, I would like to conclude with a quote from the book, To Trust and to Love, edited by Fr. Joel. “Lent is a time of repentance, for seeing how (in Christ’s eyes) things truly are. So, I shall try to use it as a time to better understand how the Gospel relates to some of the political questions which most profoundly affect us all. And for looking again at some of my most deeply engrained prejudices and assumptions. I hope you will consider doing the same.”