Lent, in case you didn’t know, is not mentioned in the Bible. The earliest Christians, in the first few decades after the death of Jesus, did not have such a season either. It’s true that they valued self-denial and penance as a way to purifying their intentions and strengthening their relationship with God, but fasting for 40 days was something they never knew. Many early Christians were clearly distinguished by their love for one another, by their willingness to give up status, freedom, their military careers and their lives for the faith they held. During times of persecution, life was always lived in the balance, on the edge.
But once the terrifying adrenaline rush of persecution ended, life changed: fear became accommodation. Outstanding acts of faith gave way to complacency. In some parts of the Empire, after Xty became legal, it made good business sense to become Christian, since that was the religion of the Emperor himself. Add to that reality the fact that Jesus didn’t seem to be in a big hurry to return in glory, and we find people settling in and settling for a faith that was more of a consumer product than a risky stand for God’s Reign. In fact, there was scarcely any discernable difference between the behaviors of Christians and non-christians. Many no longer expressed such bold love for one another, and fewer and fewer were siding with the poor, sick, and handicapped. As Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, “They decided there was no contradiction between being comfortable and being Christian.
So eventually—no one knows exactly when—Lent was invented as a six-week period of spiritual discipline before Easter. Sundays, the day of rejoicing in the resurrection of Jesus, were not part of the 40 days and in some parts of the world, it was forbidden to fast on the Lord’s Day. For forty days, the rains came down as Noah and his family stayed in the ark. Moses was on the mountain of God for forty days, and for forty years he wandered in circles in the desert with the people of Israel. And in the Gospel of Luke we are told that Jesus himself fasted for forty days, which is a long time. Forty days is still a long time; it reminds us that the spirit life we crave is a process, and not a one-time event. There are no quick fixes, no shortcuts–that’s what Lent says. Instead we are invited on a forty-day journey that becomes a process peeling away the layers of falseness that overlay our soul. We are sustained solely by the gracious abundance of God, and Lent reminds us again that we need to become fully conscious of our dependence on God, wherein lies the source of our greatness.
Throughout my life I have met people with various addictions, whether they be chemical, alcohol, abusive relationships, sex, or whatever. If you have ever listened to an addict, they all have the same basic story: they became powerless and their addiction spiraled out of control, even though intellectually they knew their decisions were bad. Some of them had to literally lose everything of value in their lives before they could admit that their habit had defeated them. Like any of us who has wrestled with trying to do the right thing but ended up doing the wrong thing, we know that whatever our problem or challenge is, it involves the entirety of our person: physical, emotional and spiritual. And we also know that God alone is powerful enough to make us whole, even though we become complacent and pretend that we can do it ourselves. In the wilderness of our lives, when we are finally honest with ourselves, we discover that all is not well with our lives. We seek to live on a higher plane, a higher level of trust in God, a more profound experience of the presence of God’s abundance.
St. Augustine writes in the 4th century, “You have made us for yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.” Blaise Pascal, the famous 17th century Catholic philosopher writes that there is within each of us a “God-shaped vacuum”. Only God can fill that vacuum, yet we all try, to varying degrees, to fill that space with all the wrong things. The unhappiness we experience, the hollowness we feel is an indicator that we have tried to fill the Holy of Holies with lesser gods.
If addiction is, at its core, anything we use to fill the empty place inside of us which belongs to God alone, then I wonder if maybe all of us aren’t addicts of one kind or another. Food, fashion, accumulation of stuff, blaming others or avoiding blame, being codependent, being stingy with our resources and time—all of it could become addictive. And when the emptiness becomes unbearable, it’s easier to try to keep filling that emptiness with even more of the same lesser thing than it is to face the painful reality of who we really are. So the peace we need and deserve continue to elude us, because only God can fix the problem.
Lent says to us, “pay attention to your life.” Which temptation gets to you? Chances are that whatever it is that has filled the vacuum will only get more demanding and inflexible. Our complacent egos will tell us, “Are you kidding? We don’t want to get fanatical about God do we? Let’s not take this Lent thing too seriously now…” And that’s the meaning of the temptation of Jesus story: we, too, are tempted to place our trust in other things, in ourselves, in our own comfort. We are tempted to continue to put other things into the “God-shaped space” inside us, but that’s when the words of Jesus come to us: “Worship the Lord your God and serve no one else.”
So we enter the Lenten wilderness again. Some of us are still struggling with the same issues we carried last Lent perhaps, but this time, let’s be simultaneously more strict and more gentle with ourselves. It’s right to expect great things from God because God expects great things from us in return. It’s not too late. It’s never too late. So, together, we enter the wilderness with only Jesus as our guide. And with him, we too will come to realize that God is worth all our waiting and all our pain. Amen.