Lent Is Time for Reflection on Ourselves
By definition, the season of Lent is the time of preparation for Holy Week, leading up to Easter. For many, it is a time to give up something like candy or smoking. It may be a time for more frequent church attendance for others. But for all who mark the season, it can be an opportunity to see ourselves and our faith more clearly.
Lent owes much of its spirit to the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert preparing for his ministry. We say he was tempted there, but a more accurate translation may be “tested.” In the time of Jesus, one view of the desert was as an abode of demons, especially that part of the desert where winds would howl around tall, rough stone. It must have been terrifying at night: dark, looming shapes, wailing wind and nothing else. In this place, Jesus was offered the opportunity to be the wrong kind of messiah. He rejected each possibility.
When Jesus entered the desert, he left behind all the expectations of others, all the hopes, all the illusions. It was just Jesus and the Father, in the Holy Spirit.
We are people of illusions. We think we understand God; we think we know ourselves and those around us. We plan our lives and are shocked when our plans fall through. We impose our wills on God or even say we know his plans. In the desert, Jesus had no illusions of his own to face and destroy: He was tested for our sake, so we would know who he was not. He did not come to bribe us with earthly bread, or astonish us with feats of invulnerability. He did not seek world domination or command an army. He simply did the will of the Father.
During Lent, we abstain from meat on Fridays, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Many people perform acts of penance such as giving up sweets, TV and the like. What is the connection to the desert?
The desert experience is about deprivation. In deprivation, we discover that we are not all-powerful. We are slaves to our bellies, to the opinions of others, to pleasure. We cannot bear pain, so we take a pill. We cannot bear growing old, so we dye our hair. Like Darth Vader in “Star Wars,” we replace our humanity with technology until there is little of ourselves left. Doing without can strip away some of the illusions and give us a glimpse of truth.
During Lent, we have the opportunity to hear voices that are usually lost in the din of pleasure and meaningless talk. We can enter into a private desert even in the midst of the world and face our own demons. We can tear down false idols only to be heartbroken at finding others behind them. If we are brave, we can run through this desert trying to find the real God amid the gods.
The late author Thomas Merton wrote about a kind of “dread.” It is the nagging sense that we have missed something important or that we have somehow been untrue to ourselves. It may feel like a crisis of faith, as though we doubted God. In reality, we doubt the false images of God that we ourselves have created. We doubt the bold pronouncements we make about our independence or open-mindedness.
This dread is heightened by the fact that the God beyond our imaginings is so close to us, although we know him not. Thoughts cross our minds about this, but we push them away. Perhaps as you read this you are thinking, “I’m not that clueless. I have faith. I know God personally.” Think again.
During Lent, we use abstinence from meat and acts of penance as metaphors. In a very small way, they model the rejection of illusions about what we need, who we are, and who God is. We cannot enter Heaven burdened with a thousand foolish attachments. As others claim our possessions, they will finally have their proper value to us. When we stand in judgment before God, we will have no illusions about our sanctity or goodness. All will be laid bare, and there will be no more hypocrisy, lies, or illusions. It is far better to begin discarding our foolish attachments in this life, and Lent is a good time to begin this work. The best time to start is always now.
To end this reflection with hope, we must remember that through all of this, God is with us. He may not offer comfort now, but he promises no trial beyond our ability to succeed. He offers us no truth we cannot accept if we become as children. When Jesus had finally driven off the devil, angels came to wait on him. When, through Jesus, we have rejected illusion and self-deception, we can be sure of continued graces from God. These are not the rewards of virtue but those gifts that are available only to real people.
On Faith is a forum for Orange County clergy and others to offer their views on religious topics of general interest. Submissions, which will be published at the discretion of The Times and are subject to editing, should be delivered to Orange County religion page editor Jack Robinson.