The First Sunday in Lent, Year A
The Collect: O God, thou who hast sent us forth into a world of opposition and trial: bless us, through the ever-present grace of him who overcame all, with the joy that surpasses understanding.
That Lent should be a season of joy seems, well, not quite right. Why voluntarily enter a world of deprivation when life is usually hard enough as it is? We can hardly follow Jesus into the wilderness if that’s where we’re already living, having been cast out of Eden alongside Adam and Eve. Sin and death really do seem to have the dominion here.
Moreover, this privation is supposed to make us like God, knowing good and evil. Knowing as much about evil as we apparently do, might not some good usefully correct the balance? Meanwhile, we kvetch: our bones wither away, because of our groaning all day long.
Perversely, we can take pride in this groaning, prancing about in the pretense of accomplishment, imagining that by giving Facebook up for 40 days we are raising ourselves up to the pinnacle of virtue. In this, though, we act the devil, raising ourselves instead to the pinnacle of temptation, as though we could become more righteous by digging ever deeper pits of deprivation for ourselves.
During Lent we’re supposed to give up our vices so as to make room for the good. The trick, of course, is that we usually enjoy these vices (otherwise we wouldn’t participate in them), so abandoning them for a time seems more like a burden than a blessing. We can hardly wait to resurrect them come Easter.
And yet the purpose of all this is that we might have joy. Finding joy in deprivation seems paradoxical, or at least unhealthily ascetic. But if our mortal experience seems fundamentally defined by deprivation or lack, we must nevertheless wrest some joy from it. All that Lent does is to bring this basic reality sharply into focus.
More profoundly, though, Lent might just challenge the notion that our lives are defined by deprivation in the first place.
Too often we define sacrifice negatively, as what we give up, when sacrifice instead denotes a positive action of making something holy. Even so, sacrifice frequently entails an experience of loss. Perhaps, however, the sacrifice consists not in the loss, but in the making the loss holy, in the consecration of poignant absence. In this way even doubt, the absence of certainty, can be a sacrifice if one finds a way to make it so.
The mingling of positive and negative in the concept of sacrifice finds crystalline expression in Jesus’ koan, that the one who would gain his life must lose it. To the Buddhist idea that the path to nirvana requires relinquishing all attachments Jesus adds an active insistence that we embrace the absence, willingly and lovingly.
Deprivation, willing or otherwise, need not amount to sacrifice. The question is not what we give up but how. Jesus, we learn in Philippians, thought it not robbery to be equal to God, and yet emptied himself and took on the form of a slave. Jesus chose the very deprivation that Lucifer lamented! “Better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven,” and yet Jesus gave up ruling in heaven to be a slave on earth.
God Incarnate did not complain at this condescension, but rather embraced his humanity. In freely laying aside his claim to equality with God, he troubled the conception that humanity is a state defined by lack. Even if lack is near the core of the human experience, Jesus showed by example that there is something in humanity worth embracing—if for no reason other than love. What other motivation could possibly induce such a decision?
Lent, then, is about teaching us to interpret our experience in a new way, by learning to love life for what it is. In doing so we make our lives holy—which means that we come to love the God who turns out to have been with us all along. May we, therefore, find joy in the sacrifices of this Lenten season as we experience the immanent grace of his sacrifice who made all our joy possible. Let all who are of true heart shout for joy!
For the music this week, I’ve chosen a song that seems to capture the blend of joy and sorrow reflected in the post: “Wondrous Love,” a powerful hymn from the Second Great Awakening. This version by Anonymous 4 connects it stylistically to the older Anglican and Catholic music that usually accompanies these posts.
Here, also, is a favorite poem, Dylan Thomas’s “And Death Shall Have No Dominion,” that contrasts the pain and even horror of life with the great promise of the title.
Finally, a luminous article by Casey N. Cep in The New Yorker, reviewing Abbie Reese’s recent book Dedicated to God: An Oral History of Cloistered Nuns, about a group of Poor Clares in Rockford, Illinois. Apropos the discussion above, Cep writes: “[A]nother one of monasticism’s surprises” is that “where the world expects sorrow, the cloistered feel joy.”