Leaning into Lent
Leaning into Lent
And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. (Mark 1:11-13, NRSV)
In the spirit of Mark’s fast-moving Gospel, let me get to the point: there’s something about this passage that bothers me. To describe what the Spirit does to Jesus after he is affirmed publicly by God, Mark uses the word “ekballō” (verse 12), which means “to eject, drive, cast, expel.” It’s the same word used to describe what Jesus does to unclean spirits in the Gospels. This is striking! While the English words and phrases we use to translate Greek can be inadequate, the word “drove” works well in this situation. It allows me to imagine the Spirit driving up to the Jordan in a car and yelling to Jesus, “hop in, we’re going for a drive.”
To make the point clear: being driven to the wilderness seems like the last thing that should happen if God truly “delighted” in me.
The 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness provides the template for us to fast, pray and repent for the 40 days leading up to Easter, the season of the liturgical (or church) calendar called Lent. Observing and participating in the liturgical calendar is a relatively new practice for me. I started following Christ in college, and the evangelical church of which I was part saw Lent, Ash Wednesday and other parts of the liturgical calendar (aside from Christmas and Easter) as “Catholic,” and we simply didn’t participate in “Catholic things.” But as I have journeyed with Christ and his church, I have grown to appreciate these yearly rhythms; rhythms that help us explore the mystery of God’s interaction with humanity; rhythms – like Ash Wednesday – that help us explore what it means to be fully human.
As campus chaplain, I have been led to integrate some of these practices into our approach to spiritual formation. It not only allows a large part of our student body with a Catholic background to find something familiar in their faith practice here at FPU, but also helps us introduce these yearly life-giving rhythms to students who are unfamiliar. Perhaps this is part of what it means to be Anabaptist, evangelical and ecumenical.
Asking our students to lean into the Lenten season can be difficult, however. It is much more fun to tell students that God delights in them rather than smearing ashes on their foreheads and saying, essentially, “remember, you’re going to die!” As a dad, I’ve learned I need to explain to my young children that they will have to go through things that aren’t fun, and they might even hurt for a minute – like going to the dentist or getting an immunization – but in the end, it’s good and necessary. Being reminded of our mortality forms us.
Over the last few years, my family has been reminded too many times about our mortality. We have sat with five different members of our family in the last days, hours and minutes of their precious lives. Almost exactly a year ago, we received a call from the hospital social worker telling us to make our way to the hospital to be with my father-in-law. For the previous month, he had battled COVID, and in the end, it was too much for his body. We sat with him later that day and wept and prayed as he took his final breath. I’m only realizing it now, but as we walked out of the hospital, it was almost as if the Spirit was there waiting for us in a car, saying, “hop in…we’re going for a drive.”
Being in the wilderness is painful. It hurts. Why would the Spirit “ekballō” us to the wild? Why do we lean into Lent? Why do we smear ashes on the foreheads of students and remind them of their mortality? Why do we have conversations about death and dying with 18-22-year-olds who have their whole lives ahead of them? The answer for us today, I believe, is the same that it was for Jesus in the wilderness. We need to practice death. Maybe more accurately, we need to practice dying. We need places and spaces that help wean us from the self-serving pleasures of this world. We need spiritual practices and seasons during the year that help us die to ourselves so that we might truly come alive for God and others. “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Rom. 6:5).