Lent is a funny season. Lent gives us all these seemingly horrible things and calls them gifts. We kick things off with a bang on Ash Wednesday. We gather in the church and kneel before God while someone tells us that we are dust and to dust we shall return. In other words, we come to church to be reminded that death is real, death is unavoidable, and death is coming. With the exception of people facing severe illness or people beyond a certain age, death is not typically a part of our everyday conversations. Rarely are you drinking a latte with a friend who casually says, “So you know we are going to die, right? Maybe today, maybe tomorrow, but we will both die.” That is because death for us is one of those conversations that we do not really like to entertain because death brings down the mood and makes us feel sad. And yet, that is how we kick off the season of Lent. “Happy Lent! We’re all going to die!”
And if that were not sobering enough, the Church takes the next forty days reminding us of our brokenness, of our sinfulness, and of our failures. We kneel more, confess more intentionally, and pray to reconnect with God. The season seems to gather us up, place us sackcloth, and then let us wallow in our own sense of unworthiness. Why in the world would any of us make a commitment to come to Church in Lent with the promise of such guilt and sobriety?
Actually, I think most of us have a love-hate relationship with the wilderness we find in Lent. We do not want to do the hard work that Lent requires, and yet we also desperately long for a place that acknowledges the reality of all that is hidden behind our perfectly constructed masks, and invites us to just be still and present with our LORD. In a world that Photoshops, creates whole lines of anti-aging products, and fights death tooth and nail, the church creates a season where we look at ourselves without enhancements and work towards contentment, peace, and even joy. Lent is a season of honesty, “when the church reminds us of what our culture denies – that our days are limited, and that we’ve made a mess of things.”[i]
Of course, the church did not really invent Lent per se. The people of God have been experiencing the same concept for years, most frequently in the wilderness. We know the stories well: Noah completing his forty days on a ship, floating in his own, albeit probably very loud, watery wilderness; the people of Israel wandering the desert wilderness for forty years; and, as we hear on this first Sunday in Lent, Jesus, led out to the wilderness by the Spirit for forty days immediately after his life-changing baptism. Each of those experiences are full of Lenten themes: being taken out of the comforts of life; wondering whether there will be relief from suffering, whether there is dry land, food in the desert, or Satan himself; and glimpses of hope, whether from an olive branch, manna from heaven, or tending angels. These wilderness experiences, or Lenten-type journeys, pave the way for renewal and reinvention.
This winter, one of our Movies with Margaret features was called The Way. In the film, a father and his adult son have become somewhat estranged. The son decided to travel the world to find himself, and the father scoffs. Months into his son’s travels, the father gets a call. His son had decided to walk the Camino – the pilgrim’s path in France and Spain that pilgrims have been walking since the ninth century. Unfortunately the son died while walking the Camino, and the father now needed to pick up the body. While going through his son’s hiking pack, the father replays their last conversation – about how his Dad is too rigid and never travels anymore since his wife died. Untrained and unprepared, the father straps on his son’s pack and begins to walk. He confesses he has no idea why he is walking, but he walks anyway.
The movie goes on to document what might be described as the father’s own wilderness journey. He deals with getting lost, trying to sleep in noisy hostels, not being able to get rid of talkative fellow pilgrims, losing his bag briefly in a river, getting arrested, and later having his bag stolen by a gypsy. When he gets to the end of the journey, he takes his documents to the pilgrimage office to have the paperwork authorized and get a certificate of completion. Before the official will sign his paperwork, he asks a question that stumps the father. “What is your reason for walking the Way?” The father stammers. He cannot put into words why he grabbed his son’s bag and started walking. Recalling the last fight he had with his son, the best he can come up with is, “I thought I needed to travel more.”
Mark does not give us many details about Jesus’ journey in the wilderness. Unlike the other gospels, we do not hear the details of his encounter with Satan. We do not really understand what happens with those wild beasts – whether they were friends of foes. We hear about some angels at the end, but we do not know how much they are present. All we really know is that Jesus is in a wilderness for forty days and that those days happen after he is baptized and proclaimed the beloved and before he can begin his earthly ministry.
We too start a wilderness experience today. At the beginning of our liturgy we confessed many things. We confessed blindness of heart, pride, vainglory, hypocrisy, envy, hatred, and malice. We confessed our inordinate and sinful affections and our fear of dying suddenly and unprepared. We confessed our loneliness, our suffering, and our ignorance. And we prayed for our enemies. The ashes from Ash Wednesday and their message of the inevitability of death still linger in our subconscious. Like the father in The Way, we put all of those confessions and acknowledgments in a pack, put the pack on our back, and we begin to walk. None of us knows what will happen on this forty-day journey. We do not know how our Lenten disciplines will shape us, or what external factors will impact our lives. But we begin the Lenten journey anyway.
The promise for us is refreshment at the end of the journey. For me, that refreshment is the Easter Vigil. At Easter Vigil, I put down my pack full of my forty days’ worth of experiences. I hear the piercing words of the Exultet and the old stories of our salvation told in the darkness. I watch candles flicker as we sing hymns. And then I watch the church explode with light and the sound of bells. We say the forbidden “A-word” after a forty-day hiatus. We feast on the Eucharistic meal after fasting from that meal since Maundy Thursday. And we rejoice in our risen Lord.
In the movie, The Way, the father reaches the end of the pilgrimage and has a sacred moment in the church at the Pilgrim’s mass. He decides to keep journeying further to spread his son’s ashes into the sea. And at the end of the film, we see him traveling to other places – finally taking up his son’s challenge to see more of the world. That’s the funny thing about journeys. They are not the end of the story. Our Lenten journey will be a true pilgrim’s journey. But our journey will not end at the Vigil. Just like Jesus’ journey did not end with angels tending to him. As Barbara Brown Taylor says, “Even after he left the wilderness, [Jesus] carried [the wilderness] inside him, and far from fleeing [the wilderness] later in his life he sought [the wilderness] out. Without the wilderness he might not have been the same person. Because of the wilderness he was not afraid of anything.”[ii] We all need the wilderness to shape us and mold us. Our Lenten pilgrimage will change us, both as individuals and as a community, because in the church, we do not journey alone. Your fellow pilgrims are here in the pews beside you – perhaps to annoy you, or send you on a detour – but maybe also to bail you out of jail from time to time. Together we are pilgrims on the way, being transformed for new life beyond Lent. Amen.
[i] Dan Clendenin, “To See Death Daily,” posted February 16, 2015 at http://www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20150216JJ.shtml.
[ii] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Four Stops in the Wilderness,” Journal for Preachers, vol. 24, no. 2, Lent 2001, 4.