Today is the first Sunday in Lent, and for most of us, this is the beginning of the season. But for those who received the smudge of ashes on Wednesday, the season began at that moment, with a word: Remember. How many generations of priests have murmured the word remember at our altar rail, on Ash Wednesday…? Remember that you from dust, and to dust you will return. And how many generations of parishioners have accepted those words as an entrance into the living memory of Christ’s season of sacrifice? During Lent, remember is a powerful word… and memory a powerful force.
This year for Lent, my meditations are taken from a book by Walter Wangerin Jr, called: Reliving the Passion. It’s a good book for Lent this particular year, because the meditations it contains are inspired by the writings of Mark’s gospel. For Wangerin, the act of remembering is an act of meditative reliving – a form of Ignatian prayer – in which scenes from the gospels are replayed in our presence. Such meditation can bring new life to the words on the pages of scripture, and it calls us into the story.
But what do we remember? Ashes to ashes and dust to dust. Yes, during Lent we contemplate our mortality. But more than that, we remember that when we die, we die in Christ and that because we die in Christ, we live. We remember that Christ’s mortality was necessary, as a reflection of human sin. To Wangerin, it’s like looking in a mirror: we see our sins reflected in the pain of those we hurt; in the consequences of our actions; and ultimately, we see our reflection in the pain of the cross. And we remember his promise to his disciples: that in spite of his pain and mortality, he would meet them in Galilee…where it all begins and ends in Mark’s gospel. In Lent we hear his promise again, and remember that – in spite of our failings – we will be with him again…Remember.
If Lent is a season of remembering, then I suppose one way of jogging our memories is to make small sacrifices. Jesus sacrificed, and during Lent, so should we. Shall we give up some small indulgence? What shall we sacrifice? Well…What would Jesus give up? Lucky Strike cigarettes and Falstaff beer? Moon Pies and RC Cola? Ring Dings and Nutty Buddies?
I think a better sacrifice for us is of our time; trading it for disciplines that will buttress faith and spirit. Reading and meditating on scripture; performing charitable acts; and very important: maintaining a habit of prayer. We lose very little by sacrificing our time during Lent. But in return we add something substantial to our faith…remembering.
And that’s important, because remembering builds faith. And faith will see us through Lent, and Easter, and Pentecost and all the seasons of life and faith. And remembering will help carry us through times of temptation.
No one really wants to face temptation…illness, grief, loss... No one enjoys the wilderness that life can sometimes become. It’s a place in life we’re unwillingly led to…even driven to, a fact that’s readily apparent in Mark’s story.
And the spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
Lodged in there is another word that’s big, that gives this account gravity. The spirit drove him into the desert. The word we translate as drove here is ekballei. A more literal translation might be, “thrust.” The spirit thrust him, pushed him, shoved him roughly into the desert. Interestingly, Mark used a form of this word seventeen times in his gospel, almost always referring to Jesus driving out a demon. It’s a word with force, meant to convey the divine necessity of Christ’s temptations. If it seems like an aggressive word, consider that sometimes, the human condition calls for an aggressive Holy Spirit. Sometimes we are stubborn.
One of my heroes of faith is a reluctant priest named John Donne. We remember his poem from High School…No Man is an Island. But he wrote other words that have helped me remember my own spiritual stubbornness:
Batter my heart, three-person'd God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new…
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
Sometimes, force is necessary.
It was divine necessity that Christ be forced into temptation, because God was seeking community with his fallen humanity through a son who would know all our sorrows. But Mark also shows that even if the wilderness was truly barren, God was with him, ministering to him through his angels. Mark reminds us that God is always present in the time of trial. And that after we are thrust into the wilderness of mortal temptations, we need the power of God’s divine presence…we need the strength of faith.
The austerity of Lent, by itself, will not see us through the wilderness. But the acts of sacrifice, prayer, charity and study will. And if you will make them a pattern of living, then you’ll always remember, until remembrance is no longer needed.
And so, I invite you to keep a good and holy Lent. I invite you to remember, and to spend this season of remembrance in ways that will add eternity to you, rather than subtracting mortality. I invite you to remember, and then to see where the spirit will take you in these forty days.