Lent is fashionable these days.
Maybe it has to do with our tough economic times: We’re more disposed toward introspection and self-scrutiny when our futures (and our children’s futures) seem so uncertain. Perhaps it’s not hard to summon the soberness required for Lent when we’ve been sobered for months by news of scandal and strife, paralysis in our politics, and large-scale disasters both “natural” and man-made.
But I wonder about linking Lent so closely with this kind of self-regard and the anxiety that accompanies it. Facing my temptations, bearing my cross–characterizing Lent this way makes it more personal and private than it ought to be. Tailor-made spiritualities are all the rage, I realize, but discipleship-as-self-improvement does not much resemble the way of the cross.
Still wet from his baptism, Jesus is “led by the Spirit in the wilderness” (Luke 4:1). It is his series of temptations, his journey to the cross that Lent would have us pay attention to. That Jesus’ life is an affront to political power and his death a result of state-sponsored violence are truths not usually factored into, say, our deliberations about what to give up for Lent.
And yet it’s true that each time Jesus is tempted with power in the wilderness, his refusal of it reveals what drives our desire for power, our need for security and affirmation: fear. The root of all sin, Herbert McCabe has said, is “the very deep fear that we are nothing.”
And because of this, we often want a Lenten “experience” that will make us worthy of the love we’re sure we don’t deserve; that will “shape us up” in the eyes of a perfection-seeking God. Our neuroses, our failures, our pathetic power grabs–all conspire in this endeavor.
But to confess our sin during Lent (or at anytime) is not to plead for forgiveness from God. Rather, as McCabe reminds us, it is to thank God for it. “When God forgives our sins, he is not changing his mind about us. He is changing our minds about him. He does not change; his mind is never anything but loving; he is love.”
The Old Testament lesson for the first Sunday in Lent is Deuteronomy 26:1-11, a text that speaks of blessing and bounty, hospitality and celebration–not typical Lenten themes! But they draw our gaze outward rather than inward: toward a generous, saving God; toward neighbors; toward “the aliens who reside among you” (26:11).
Jesus is doing this, too, in his wilderness encounter with the seductions of raw power. Security and affirmation are forceful temptations, but true power, he knows, is found in worship and service (4:8)–in the transformation of our desires and in a love that is pure gratuity, the giving of self for others that will soon be enacted at his own journey’s end.
In these troubled times, security and affirmation are enduring temptations for us, too. And the fear at the root of our disordered desires deceives us into thinking that the work of transformation is ours to figure out. What book or program or spiritual technique will fix me?
But Lent gives us the freedom to give up the illusion that we are in control–that discipleship is a do-it-yourself project for the not-quite-good-enough. We are able to see that “the LORD has brought us out . . . with signs and wonders” (Deut 26:8) and made us for worship and for friendship with himself and with the world he loves.