“Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.”
These are the words that begin the Lenten season. Each year has a different account from Matthew, Mark, and Luke, but it’s always this story. It’s this story that is the foundation for much of what Lent seems to be about: a time of preparation, testing, sacrifice, penance. Jesus spent 40 days fasting and so we spend 40 days in a spirit of fasting. But what is it that this story tells us about Jesus? And what is it that Jesus tells us about us?
This raises a question: Why do we read the gospels? From an Ignatian point of view, it’s to grow in intimacy with the person of Jesus. And when I cultivate this relationship, I discover a call to grow, to not just be like Jesus but to be more myself, my true self, who God made me to be. I also discover that I am loved as I am.
An Initiation into Our Humanness
There’s something so ordinary about Lent, isn’t there? It’s not like sacrifice and challenge aren’t a part of our lives. We daily have to make choices that are difficult. We have to experience a world that is not always so easy or comfortable. We experience kinds of poverty from time to time whether material, spiritual, or even relational. We also come face to face with our human limitations, of our bodies, with illness and death. All of this is ordinary.
In his new fictional book, The Diary of Jesus Christ, Bill Cain, SJ imagines Jesus’ time in the desert from Jesus’ perspective:
In the desert, I tried to fill myself with God. I tried to become a burning bush; a pillar of fire; the plagues of Egypt; the warrior God. I tried to fill myself with curses as I had seen my cousin John do. He could place a curse and the curse would stick like a burr in people’s consciences.
I was miserable. I almost lost my mind. I was terrified and hungry and thirsty and, above all, I was brutally lonely. Lonely as I had never dreamed a person could be.
I don’t know what I was expecting to be given there. A new set of engraved stone tables, like Moses? A scroll sweet as honey to eat, like Ezekiel? Daniel’s writing on the wall?
When I came out of the desert forty days later—lonely, hungry and exhausted—my mother welcomed me home without an I-told-you-so. She took care of me without asking questions.
As she cooked me a meal, I said to her, “I’m sorry. I’ve failed.”
She said, “Failed? In what have you failed?”
I said, “I have turned out to be ordinary…”
He then tells her that she met the Angel Gabriel in the desert and how he gave Mary his regards. Jesus then tells Mary: “He said that you are a good teacher.”
She shook her head and said, “Not when it comes to you. Try as I did, you were always running off to the temple to find God. I did my best. Still, you had good teachers in the desert. Hunger. Thirst. Loneliness. They are good teachers. What did you learn?”
“All I could think about for forty days was bread. All I felt was loneliness and shame that my life was going nowhere. I almost didn’t come out, I was so ashamed. I discovered I was ordinary. Utterly not special. I knew what it was to need help. It’s a small thing to know, but it’s amazing how it changes you.
“I could recognize hunger. I could see it in people at the sides of the street. And I knew loneliness. I can’t walk by it anymore now that I know it intimately. That old woman sitting in the sun? The beggar at the crossroads? The leper? The child with no one to play with? I know their loneliness in mine.
Jesus was led into the desert to discover that he is ordinary. He discovered hunger, thirst, and loneliness were his teachers. Remember that Jesus’ baptism and time in the desert was an initiation into his public ministry. And as Bill Cain imagines, an initiation into his humanness, which helped put Jesus more closely in solidarity with those he would minister to: the widow, the beggar, the leper, the child. Lent is a kind of initiation into our own humanness.
Jesus’ rituals of baptism and fasting in the desert are like the purification rituals of the Lakota who undertake vision quests. A person first enters a sweat lodge. This hot and steamy hut is a kind of spiritual purification. Then they retreat into the wilderness off to an isolated place, without food or water where they may perform certain rituals. Eventually a vision comes to the person in the form of an animal or a force of nature. The lessons that come from the vision quest influences the rest of the person’s life. It’s a retreat to a point of near death as a way to discover some of life’s truths.
Jesus’ beginning is not a sweat lodge but a water baptism and his mission is solidified in his 40 days in the desert, without food or water, where the force of nature he encounters is Satan. Like any true initiation, you are tested, questioned, you question yourself and your values and hopes and purpose. Initiations can help one grow into humility, a recognition of their need for God. As Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” In other words, those who have a poverty of spirit and recognize their need for God will find God.
Sometimes we need that experience of poverty to remind us of our ordinariness. Ash Wednesday for example uses the symbol of ash—of dust—to remind us that we are dust. Pope Francis says, “We are dust in the universe. Yet we are dust loved by God.” Jesus experiences the dust of the desert, the dust of humanity.
What these Lenten rituals do ideally is to lead us to metanoia, which means to change our mind, or to change our perspective. Rituals of sacrifice and reminders of our ordinariness are for the sake of finding new life. It leads to a new kind of freedom. In the desert Jesus’ perspective was changed. He found not some miracle, but his humanness.
Read these words of St Paul from his letter to the Philippians:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.
Most of us are impressed with the image of Jesus the Almighty God, the miracle-worker, or Christ the King. Yet here Paul sees the humble, human, desert-Jesus. And he says, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” He’s calling us to metanoia, for our minds and hearts to be changed.
Pruning the Grapevine
So what is the blessing of suffering, a theme so wrapped up in Lent? We already talked about how suffering is a very ordinary, human part of life. But for those of us who have been through significant suffering of some kind, we know how it can lead to metanoia. The priest and spiritual writer Edward Hays uses the metaphor of a grapevine. He says:
The pruning of the grapevine is a mirror-reflection of the activity of pain and suffering in our lives. The cutting and removing of sections of the grapevine during its dormant period is one of the most important aspects of raising the good grapes which are necessary to produce good wine. The wise vineyard keeper knows how to prune, to cut away, and when to do it. He understands that the purpose of this “destructive” act is to make the vines grow fewer, but better, grapes.
We see this wisdom captured in other metaphors Jesus offered. The grain of wheat that must die in order to bear fruit. The destruction of a seed when planted and the pruning of the grapevine are ordinary actions. They are necessary, even. Unpruned grapes can make the wine taste watered down. We don’t want watered down lives.
We’re beginning to see the paradox of Lent—and even the Christian life. Death leads to new life. Pruning fosters healthy growth. The suffering in life leads to metanoia. Lent just reminds us of what is ordinary.
The evil spirit, according to Ignatius, tempts with riches, honour, and pride – things that one might say are “ordinary” in our world. Why wouldn’t you want financial security, a certain power and control, or even a sense of being special? What’s ordinary here is that we are tempted by those things daily! Lent reminds us of this. But there’s a sense of indulgence with those things, a sense of the vines being overgrown. And what happens is that when our vines are overgrown with riches, honour, and pride, our lives become watered down.
The growth, paradoxically, comes through Jesus’ invitation to poverty, lowliness, and humility. These are tactics of pruning, surrender, letting go. These things seem more against the grain, less ordinary. But they should be ordinary to the Christian.
The evil spirit uses hooks to grab or lure us. Think of a fishing lure (an artificial fish with a hook attached) and how the bait looks pleasing and life-giving to the fish who tries to swallow it. They’re deceived. Humans are lured by riches, honour, and pride. They seem, on the surface, to give us security and freedom, yet they’re traps. They have the tendency to enslave us and lead us to sin.
But there’s some good news. Ignatian author Margaret Silf uses this image of a train, where we’re on a journey to “True North”—toward God. The evil spirit journeys with us but is not the driver:
I don’t have – and can’t (by the nature of things) have any permanent hold on anything, because I myself am only passing through the created world at this moment in time, and everything else is equally transient. To try to ‘hold on’ to things (or people) is to reverse the natural logic of creation, and set myself up, as it were, as creator myself.
Jesus realised this in the desert: all the things offered to him were not truly permanent. What he had in his Father was all that was permanent. The things in life are not me. They don’t define me, they don’t hook me, they don’t have a claim on me. They may be nice, they may even be gifts from God, but they’re still passing.
Fasting and Feasting
So what’s the call of Lent? Do we just try and rid ourselves of these things? These potential hooks? Well, in Lent many people take on a spiritual discipline. Some do certain penances. Now Catholics are quite familiar with penances since it is an integral part of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. But spiritual disciplines should lead us ultimately to some kind of service or care for neighbour. Edward Hays writes:
Penance is a religious action of voluntary suffering, as a sign of personal sorrow for sin. Penance is a reaction to the haunting fear that God is not satisfied with an honest expression of sorrow, but demands restitution for sins. Penances, as forms of denial of the things we enjoy, are self-inflicted penalties whose purpose is to help your case when you appear before the divine judge. They were types of early religious plea-bargaining meant to lighten your eternal sentence.
In other words, it’s something often done out of fear. Then there’s asceticism, which historically had more to do with the rejection of the body than with the experience of God. It saw the body as an obstacle to holiness and so one was to deny “earthly” things like marriage, feasting, or drinking.
What’s interesting though is that Jesus did not require penances when he forgave people. Moses did not require fasting from his followers. Nor did Jesus. In fact, in Luke 7 the Pharisees and Scribes say to Jesus, “John’s disciples, like the disciples of the Pharisees, frequently fast and pray, but your disciples eat and drink.” Many of the gospel stories seem to focus more on feasting: meals around a table, banquets, wedding feasts, good wine… You know, feasting is a big part of the Christian tradition. We have feast days where traditionally the good food had been brought out. On a feast day you’d have a different kind of meal than on the other days. I remember when I was in the Jesuits, our meals were simpler on ordinary days but on Sundays and other feast days we’d do it more fancy.
Fasting though is really a spiritual discipline of service. I think in the desert Jesus realised that fasting from food for such an extended period of time wasn’t so helpful (we never see him promote that kind of thing). Works of mercy though are a form of fasting, a fasting from the ego and self-preoccupation. Jesus certainly spoke about that healthy kind of self-denial. Not a denial of the body, but of the ego.
So we might want to ask ourselves, “What should I fast from? What should I feast on?” How can I fast from the hooks of the evil spirit? How can I feast on the love of God? How can I fast from fear and feast on God’s mercy? How can I fast from power and pride and feast on the paradoxical invitations of Jesus: poverty, lowliness, and humility?
Those things seem so plain, don’t they? We seek riches and power because we don’t want to be plain, we don’t want to be so ordinary! There was this story of a boy who had his first communion and after he receives and consumes the host, he returns to his seat and says to his mother, “God tasted just like bread.” We often lean toward the side of transcendent and we put the host in a monstrance and glorify it. But is it okay that God tastes like the ordinary? Looks ordinary? Is it okay that God comes to us in the ordinary? In bread and wine, in a baby, in the stuff of the world?
Let us allow the season of Lent be a call to being ordinary, to learn how to accept the ordinary. We’ll be much more prepared for the Easter feast.
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