Lent as a fixture in the Christian calendar appears to parallel and so suit with similar purposes to our Lord’s own period of forty days spent by him in the wilderness, at a time immediately following the event of his baptism in Jordan by John Baptist.
It is pretty well certain to me that the event of Jesus’ baptism being followed immediately by his forty days, in which he chose to be alone and to fast from eating food, is significant, not just as the event when The Descent of The Dove of the Spirit of God alighted on his Person, but also as a trigger also to his motivation for entering a wilderness and being there alone and abstaining from food for forty days.
Indeed this very Descent of the Dove of The Holy Spirit occurring at his baptism was also probably another major factor in – as St Mark says – of Jesus being ‘driven into the wilderness’. This word St Mark uses, ‘driven’, is emphatic and suggests an inner compulsion acting upon Jesus which insisted that he go and be alone fasting for a time. An inner compulsion he assented to obey; an inner compulsion perhaps parallel to St Paul’s decision to retreat for two or three years immediately upon his Damascene conversion on the journey he was taking to persecute new Christians.
These hiatuses, these takings of time-out, upon and as a result of a powerfully significant event upon one’s mind and motivations, are probably not unusual occurrences generally speaking. Everyone, anyone, whose life has been changed significantly ‘at a stroke’ will have found that they suddenly have a lot of backlog of reorientation and assimilation to a new situation to deal with before they are able to make use of any new spiritual revelation or confirmed state of mind.
In short, a good deal of R&R was required for Paul and Jesus; and remains called-for on such occasions. Maybe not Rest and Recreation; rather Reflection and Reconstruction; a formulation in one’s mind whither next to go and howso next to act; a settlement for a way forward, and needing thought-through, so as to make the very best use of a radically new state of affairs which has suddenly been thrust upon the self.
Imagine the situation. Jesus after around thirty years of life, having now considered that the time is right and ‘his hour come’ feels he should step out into the public sphere and there perform his mission given to him by his Father to fulfil, and so get to work so as to ‘complete the Scriptures’.
To be non-controversial, I don’t want to be otherwise, we should observe that Jesus is wholly human and wholly God during his Incarnation; and that this means that we should accept that as a human being in the world he was ‘in all points like as we are’.
This proposition means to me, that Jesus had no special foreknowledge which is not given to other men; he had ‘laid to one side’ at the time of his birth in Bethlehem, his omnipotence and his omniscience, and all his Godly attributes not compatible with being a human person.
His miracles and the powers he shows during his mission then are suggested by St John in his gospel as being acts and deeds worked by The Father directly through Jesus, who is at once His Son and also a wholly human person.
I don’t want to get deflected in to this territory any further; I want just to suggest that the Descent of The Dove of The Holy Spirit upon him was a great shock to his system; even had he had an strong inkling beforehand to his baptism that it was to be of such profound significance to his future life on earth. St Paul maybe expresses well the impact of this sort of shock and its significance to our awareness in his words on the end of times; “we shall all be changed — in an instant, in the twinkling of an eye”.
The paradox of Lent, that parallel which we observe in the calendar, to Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness, is that Lent works its effects on us and our minds the other way around. Its effects build upon us rather than descending on us in a great heap all at once, like epiphanies did with Jesus and Paul
We enter into the Lenten period with a feast on Shrove Tuesday; or as the British call it Pancake Day.
We feast because of two reasons. Firstly we are eating up all the delicacies, the scraps of them – the British putting them in their pancakes – which is that food remaining which comprises any rich leftovers from Christmas and New Year celebrations; and secondly, we are saying farewell, for at least forty days, to delicacies of food, deliberately relinquishing them from our diets; and so preparing ourselves for a fast, for a bit of an ordeal, and for a planned foregoing of pleasure; and we do so in due reverence to our Lord, preparing ourselves for our commemoration of his Passion and Resurrection, at the forthcoming Easter event.
St Paul and Our Lord were, as it were, thunderstruck; the first by a sudden enlightened conversion, and the second by the Descent of the Dove at his baptism; and their minds were stricken, and had need to reflect and so to assimilate each their newly and suddenly broadened understandings. Thus the pressure of the outside of things broke in and took an iron hold inside on the things in their minds.
During Lent, not only is our progress and any change or advance in our spirituality usually a gradual one, accumulating over the course of the whole period of 40 days; most unlike any sudden change in an eye blink; but there is in addition our interior reflection and our self-discipline of foregoing any food indulgence, there are our silent meditations and also our devout Bible study; all of which are the inner things of the mind. These inward influences act and react upon our outward behaviour and even on our appearance. Thus things going on inside us are thereby preparing us for an event of Easter which is to happen and to be celebrated in many ways and in general outside of us.
This is the paradox of process between the effects of Lent, and the utterly sudden effects of St Paul’s conversion and of Our Lord’s baptism.
Our wilderness then is within us during Lent; and is self-created by our decision and resolve to abstain, and so become ascetics, for nearly seven weeks. Jesus’ wilderness was a terra firma place of actuality in the physical world.
Yet the same purposes were to do with both places; that place in the mind and that other in the dessert of Judea; these purposes being rolled up into one word might be said to be: Preparatory.
Jesus hungered without food at all. He stayed of his own will forty days alone and thought through his new position – his understanding confirmed now that indeed he was indeed The Anointed One. The One who had been pledged by God to come had now come; and behold without doubt it was he.
In that we are unprofitable servants and followers of Jesus; and so at best pale shadows of his own great glory and divinity; we abstain from one or two things, usually foods, which we would relish and enjoy in the normal course of things. We therefore get merely a taste of the strong flavours of renunciation Jesus tasted during his forty days in the desserts of Judea. Our renunciations are as much as we are able and willing to bear; Jesus of course renounced everything to do with any personal consideration.
Nonetheless Lent for ourselves is about renunciation and self- denial, about self-discipline and about a preparation of the mind for a due and proper celebration of the coming Easter event.
Jesus too was preparing himself; steeling himself in self-discipline, renouncing all worldly things; forming his consciousness for the tough road ahead and for the trials laid out for him by his Father, and written down in the Old Testament by the prophets, as to be fulfilled by him.
Ours then is a Lenten homage to a work completed and to the Person of Christ whose life completed the work; this is what we are gearing ourselves up for during our Lenten preparations; to be as spotless as we might make ourselves, so as to be a worthy presence at the Cross, at the Empty Tomb and in the Garden on Easter Sunday early in the morning on the first day of the week.
That Jesus himself was readied and was fully assured for those appointed tasks ahead of him; in the first place by this preparatory testing of forty days length of the metal of his thought and character, came in the shape of the Temptations of Satan upon him, which are recorded in the gospels as being the events which bring to a close this period his in the wilderness. For Jesus to be proof against Satan was for his own steadfastness proof of his readiness and ability to perform all those things which God had prepared for him to do – the work of Salvation and rescue for Mankind.
In short Jesus dismisses Satan baffled and perplexed, defeated in his efforts to sap the will or to turn the intent of the Saviour. Three temptations; three rebuttals – Three offers of worldly glory in ascending levels of temptation; met with three holy responses from Jesus which allowed him some time later to say with an absolute faithfulness ‘I have overcome the world’.
Note that Satan is dismissed ‘for a time’ only; and he is not absolutely dismissed forever. This can only mean, I think, that Satan too is intended to be judged at some future time; and at a time when, just as he is said to be commanded regarding Job, the man of Uz, he will have to stand before God Almighty because he will have been summoned to stand there once more, and for one last time.
Our own struggles with temptations during the Lenten period are very real to us; and in their ways and in miniature, are for us as strenuous as those which are related as having been offered to Jesus by Satan. Our own struggles present themselves as having the same uncertainties of outcome which all testing of any kind has; in this sense they are authentic and actual; the measure of our resolve.
Yet why should we be tested; why should Jesus be tempted; what is the meaning of such an – as it were unnecessary – placing of us in harm’s way by God?
We pray daily in the Our Father, The Lord’s Prayer, which is the prayer given to us by Jesus himself upon his being pressed by his disciples asking him: ‘How should we pray?’ and in our recital of it we ask God to ‘Lead us not into temptation’.
Here then is acknowledgement that temptation is a tool used by God in his employing his purposes for us; a tool which he uses to hone us; to shape us; and as you may remember from our last talk, as John Donne prays: “burn, blow, break, and make me new”.
This idea of God using temptation as a tool for refining us is a commonplace one found throughout scripture. Look at the following citations:
“Those he chastises he loves’
‘He is like a refiner’s fire’
“Satan sifts you Peter”
The very idea mentioned by St Paul of “handing person over to Satan” is not an idea of them being jettisoned into Satan’s permanent keeping; but rather it represents a handing over to Satan of a person temporarily; and for the sake of that person’s correction, with an eye to his reinstatement among the faithful once Satan has done his work with the miscreant.
Thus we see two things:
- God uses temptations upon us, so as to test us, so as to pass us through the mills which separate our wheat from our chaff; so as to make us fitter persons for his Kingdom.
- God employs Satan in this work; and Satan has no power but that which God allows to him; and is able to do nothing without God’s own permission and allowance
And our fasting and self-denials during the Lent period are akin to such holy temptations. They are akin in that like temptations, they impose stresses upon us which tend in one direction to lead us with a desire to break our fasts, but yet, in a necessary and complementary fashion, being a fashion arising out of our desires to break our fasts, these same desires are those stimulants which cause us to dwell upon and to think through more deeply the higher things and the solemn and deep Christian truths by which we aim to live.
It would be an overstatement to say that a Lenten fast is a self-imposed exposure to temptations. The Church calls upon us to fast during Lent. Jesus himself gives us his example in the wilderness. And just as God uses Satan to work temptations upon us; so too he uses his ordinances, such as this one for Lenten fast, to place us in a temptation-like situation, so that we become tested, and so tending towards being refined
The old saying from Shakespeare’s comedy drama called “As You Like It” and spoken by the kindly Duke Senior is a useful one in this case. He says memorably: “Sweet are the uses of adversity”
And one should not forget the formal structure of the Church calendar which determines when Lent comes in the year and its recurrence every year, and that it lasts for the same length of days and with the same rituals (Shrove Tuesday until Easter Day etc) surrounding it; all these regularities act as supports to the ritual and the liturgy of the Church, so as for them together to make a shape in which people are reminded and encouraged to do due honour and respect, and so imitate in their small ways, the conduct Jesus given to us by his life examples recommended to us.
The great English scholar and writer Samuel Johnson held as one of his chief maxims concerning human behaviour that in general most of us are not bad persons, only rather weak ones; and so we need reminders on how we ought to behave rather than correctives or punishments. He felt it was part of his life’s mission to be a reminder to others of their truth duties and rightful ways of presenting themselves in society and in personal life. He was one of the time’s great Christians.
And Lent then is perhaps in chief a statement in the Church calendar situated there as a reminder to us, that we are fallible creatures and that just as we need food for us to remain healthy and in good shape; we likewise need the food of reminders and prompts as these are given by the Church Calendar and by generous men like Samuel Johnson, in order for us to remain spiritually healthy and in good shape.
By way of the Church calendar we relive in little and in our lively spirits once again the chief events of the life and mission of Jesus himself. From that moment when Jesus turns his face towards Jerusalem for the final time; and to the amazement of his disciples heads towards a place where they all know death is lurking to murder him; right up to the time of the angels in bright raiment assuring Mary that ‘He is not here. He is risen’; it is the case that just as Jesus himself was prepared for the events of this final entry, so we too are allowed, by our participation in the Lenten fast, a sampling, a glimpse, of the same thoughts and the same concerns which Jesus himself was mulling over; these thoughts bearing upon us some of the same sobering and salutary effects in our minds and thinking, as those which fortified and strengthened our Lord on his last clearly foreseen Incarnate course and destination