Archive for March, 2011

Spring forward

One small step for the hour hand; one giant leap for mankind.


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Whenever we prepare to enter the various seasons in the Christian calendar that commemorate seasons and events in the life of Jesus — especially penitential fasting seasons like Lent, which mark Jesus’s dark seasons — we have to remember not to observe them as though Jesus has not been raised from the dead. We can’t go back the Judean wilderness, circa A.D. 27, for Lent. It isn’t the path of wisdom to observe a memorial fast in a self-enforced ignorance of the mighty works of God in history. Redemptive history is linear, and you can’t play it again, Sam.

And yet the Church calendar, by annually calling us to re-trace the steps of Jesus, properly reflects that there is a certain circularity built into time. This is true both in creation and in history. Our weeks, for example, keep perfect seven-step time. Likewise our seasons: every year winter gives way to spring, spring to summer, summer to autumn, and then winter comes again.  The leaves appear, then grow, then turn, then fall. Moons wax and wane. As for history, it’s littered with encores — some sublime, some pathetic. But patterns repeat themselves often enough, and certain motifs recur frequently enough, to where the Preacher was right to say “what has been is what will be,” and to douse the excitement of those who look at their times and exclaim “see, this is new!” (1)

The practical question this puts before us is how to observe a circular calendar in a way that respects the dominant linearity of history. For Lent, we do this by examining carefully Jesus’s fasting and temptation in the wilderness, in light of how His forty days in the wilderness recapitulated certain key events in history. And then, in light of all that, we figure out how Jesus’s Lenten fast gives us our cues as to how to act in the world on this side of His mighty resurrection, glorious ascension, and sending of the Holy Spirit.

In the case of Lent it takes no peculiar brilliance to do this. The New Testament authors make it pretty easy to connect the dots. Jesus’s forty days in the wilderness recapitulate (primarily) Israel’s forty years in the wilderness (2). Israel’s years in the wilderness serve as a common — perhaps the most common — New Testament metaphor for where the Church presently lives: in the wilderness, heading from exile to a new home, with the redemption of her Lord and the sending of the Spirit at her back. In that sense, all of life is Lenten; the fasting and temptation of Jesus our model for all of life. He fasted and was tempted, not that we would not fast or be tempted, but that our fasting and temptations might be like His.

So Lent, like the wilderness, may be stark. But it isn’t depressing — provided we know where we come from and where we are going. Jesus went out into the wilderness barely dry from His baptism, with the words of his Father ringing in His ears: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” (3) Lent calls us to remember, as we go into the wilderness, the water of new birth running over us as it did over Jesus, with our Father’s declaration to Him resounding through His ears into our own — “my beloved children, with whom I am well pleased.” We hear that mighty declaration in and through the water: as the Israelites heard it at the Red Sea, as Jesus heard it in the Jordan. That is where we come from. And if Jesus stood under trial in the wilderness, triumphed on the cross, and was raised from the dead, then we may have confidence that he has purchased for us joy inutterable: the redemption of our bodies, and the restoration of all things, the bringing together of heaven and earth. That is where we are going.

(1) See Ecclesiastes 1.

(2) And secondarily, the temptation of Adam in the Garden. The whole of Jesus’s life is, in a way, a recapitulation of Adam’s temptation. The contrast between the two men first surfaces here in the Gospels, and reaches its sharpest focus in Gethsemane.

(3) St Mark 1:11.

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And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that [Jesus] answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” And the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher. You have truly said that he is one, and there is no other besides him. And to love him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And after that no one dared to ask him any more questions.

(St Mark 12:28-34 ESV)

There were a lot of scribes (read: lawyers or legal scholars) and Pharisees in Jerusalem in A.D. 30. So it shouldn’t surprise us to find some good apples among them. Here we see one: a fine gentlemen who is a lawyer and a Pharisee, who is straight as an arrow and not a fussy bean counter. He has been listening to Jesus parry and counter a run of crooked questions, and is duly impressed with his wisdom. So he asks Jesus a simple, foursquare question, and gets something Jesus rarely gave: a direct answer.

The course of the dialogue should particularly interest us as we draw near to Lent, with its focus on disciplines, on fasting and giving up, on repenting of and killing sin, on obedience and faithfulness. First, the scribe’s opening question protects us from a real danger: practicing Lenten disciplines mindlessly, hardly regarding God’s commandments at all, counting adherence to our disciplines as righteousness rather than as training for righteousness.* Second, the scribe’s reply to Jesus’s answer recognizes, after the manner of Jesus himself, the absolute preeminence of the twofold great commandment: love God with all that is in you, and your neighbor as yourself. If the twofold great commandment is not our focus and centerpiece, our Lenten efforts to mortify our besetting sins will prove about as effective as trying to kill off the dandelions in our yards by swatting their heads with five irons. If “I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing” (1 Cor. 13:3). The severest disciplines, the most heroic bodily acts of righteousness, are profitless without love at the root. The good scribe gets this, and so Jesus, who knows all that is in a man, declares him “not far from the kingdom of God.”

* cf. St Mark 7:1-23.

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And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

St Matthew 6:16-18 (ESV)

Perish the thought that Lenten fasting is an arbitrary exercise in deprivation for its own sake. The Christian is not at liberty to take masochistic pleasure or a sense of super-spiritual heroism in the pain of deprivation. So his fasting, his giving something up, must have the practical purpose of gaining something else. Jesus assumes this: His disciples will fast, and for their fasting will gain some reward. The question is: What reward do they hope to gain?

Those who broadcast their fasting to the world receive their reward upon the world’s receipt of the news. The nature of such a reward may vary greatly, according to audience — disbelief and ridicule from libertines, admiration from ascetics and high moralists. But the duration of the reward will not vary, not much anyway: the fasting will be seen, noted, and responded to, and that will be that.

Contrast those who season their fasts with oil and good cheer. They will be rewarded by their Father “who sees in secret.” The nature of their rewards will also vary widely, according to their sundry callings, needs, and desires — though all their rewards will be very good, since the Giver is both rich and generous.* And their rewards will endure longer than a little rubbernecking and a few idle words from the cheap seats.

So two implications from the foregoing. First, it might be beneficial to adjust our Lenten dialogue a bit, to make our first question what are you gaining for Lent? Only when we have answered that question does its proper Lenten corollary — what are you giving up to get that? — make sense. Second, all those wearing ashes on their heads next Wednesday evening should, for the several weeks following, be among the cheeriest and best-groomed people you know.

* See, e.g., St Matthew 20:1-15, 7:7-11; St James 1:17; St Luke 12:22-32; Psalm 37:4

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