There is an ongoing debate among people who have way to much time on their hands about the efficacy of most spiritual disciplines during Lent: whether we are giving up chocolate, alcohol, or swear words; whether we are taking up health improvements, like getting more sleep, walking daily, or practicing yoga; or whether we are committing to something more traditional like fasting, daily prayer, or the reading of scripture. The argument is that these disciplines domesticate Lent, making Lent akin to New Year’s resolutions instead of the sacred practices the ancient church intended. There’s even a book entitled, A Grown-up Lent: When Giving Up Chocolate Isn’t Enough, whose title alone insinuates that most of our disciplines are immature, are not “grown-up” enough to be considered worthy of Lent.
Now there are myriad articulations about why our practices are not enough, but one of the reasons articulated uses today’s gospel lesson as their defense. In today’s gospel, we hear Matthew’s version of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. On the surface, Matthew describes three temptations: the temptation to satiate a physical need (after forty days, Jesus is hungry and could turn stones to bread to satisfy this physical hunger), the temptation to prove God loves us (Jesus might want to know that God has his back before he takes on this whole savior role), and the temptation to gain political power (any messiah might assume their cause is always better aided by powerful force). By reading about Jesus’ temptation today, we might easily deduce the reason we assume Lenten disciplines is because we are mimicking Jesus’ temptation for these next forty days. Like Jesus was tempted by hunger, a desire for comfort, and a desire for power, our disciplines highlight our daily temptations and our desire to not submit to the forces of evil.
But this gets to the heart of why so many are critiquing our spiritual disciplines during Lent. Theologian Stanley Hauerwas argues, “…the temptation Jesus endures is unlike the temptation we endure, for the devil knows this is the very Son of God, who has come to reverse the history initiated by Adam and Eve’s sin in the garden and continued in the history of revolt by the people whom God loves as his own, namely, Israel.”[i] In other words, although we are surely tempted by Satan in our own time, today’s temptation of Jesus is about a cosmic battle – the very battle between good and evil, the very evil that is wreaking havoc on the civility and humanity of our country today, making us turn against one another and abandon our baptismal promises to respect the dignity of every human being. Some would argue that our giving up chocolate, or our eating fish on Fridays in Lent does not get us any closer to routing out the evil seeking to destroy the fabric of our church, our community, and our country; our focusing on physical health does not battle the things we confessed in the Great Litany today: pride, vainglory, hypocrisy, deceits of the flesh, and dying suddenly and unprepared.
Now, while I get the academic protest about the simplistic nature of our disciplines, here is what I know. A week ago, after a wonderful celebration of the end of Epiphany, and after a glorious honoring of the spirituals of our religious tradition, I lost my voice. Despite my croaking despair with my doctor, he told me, rather unsympathetically, no matter what my job was, no matter if a big event, like, say Ash Wednesday with its three services, one ecumenical potluck, and Ashes to Go, were on my agenda, in no way was I to use my voice. In essence, I was forced into silence on a week where I needed to lead. Or, I suppose put more spiritually, I was gifted the opportunity to truly embrace the classic invitation of Lent: fasting (in this case from speaking) and meditating on God’s holy word (since I certainly could not speak God’s word). The irony of this gift was not lost on me – an extrovert prone to powering through any challenge being forced to slow down and keep quiet is what Lenten disciplines are all about, right? Take our biggest spiritual struggles, and then use disciplines to help ourselves correct behavior and get right with God – this is classic Lenten stuff!
I can tell you, this past week has been a profound week of learning. All of those things we confessed in the Great Litany were in my face this week. Nothing attacks one’s pride, vanity, and envy like watching other people do the job I was made to do but could not do in my weakness. And while I was able to patiently be silent, working alone from my home office on the day before Ash Wednesday, I realized about half-way through Ash Wednesday my vocal chords were hurting not from physically trying to speak, but from tensing them in the desire to speak – my longing to speak manifested itself in a anticipatory tension of use, which became dangerously close to having the same effect of actually using my voice. When I finally realized what was happening, why I was feeling worse, I had to mentally force my throat to relax, my shoulders to release their tension, and my mind to accept I could not simply do everything I normally do, simply removing one minor part – that of speaking. No, being mute on Ash Wednesday would mean taking on another way of being.
I tell you all this not because Lent is all about me and my laryngitis. I tell you all this because although I understand the academic critique of Lenten disciplines, I also see with fresh eyes the very blessing of Lenten disciplines. Perhaps the critique is true that giving up meat, or taking up Pilates, or even reading a devotion is not going to help us battle the spiritual forces of evil; but taking on those practices will shake up our senses in really meaningful ways. Daily resisting of patterns, or daily assumptions of new patterns, creates in us a retraining of our bodies so we can begin to see, hear, taste, smell, and touch God in new ways. And that shaking – whether big or small – shakes up other things in our lives. We begin to see more clearly where we have had a blindness of heart; where we have delighted in inordinate and sinful affections; where we have hardened our hearts again our black, Latino, young, old, Republican, and Democrat neighbors; where we have even held in contempt God’s word and commandments. These disciplines are not juvenile – these disciplines, when embraced and practiced open up renewed relationship with Christ, with ourselves, and with our neighbor.
In essence, what spiritual disciplines do is help us fight the devil. Now I know that might sound extreme, but stick with me a bit. Hauerwas argues, “The devil is but another name for our impatience. We want bread, we want to force God’s hand to rescue us, we want peace – and we want all this now. But Jesus is our bread, he is our salvation, and he is our peace. That he is so requires that we learn to wait with him in a world of hunger, idolatry, and war to witness to the kingdom that is God’s patience. The Father will have the kingdom present one small act at a time. That is what it means for us to be an apocalyptic people, that is, a people who believe that Jesus’ refusal to accept the devil’s terms for the world’s salvation has made it possible for a people to exist that offers an alternative time to a world that believes we have no time to be just.”[ii]
So, I say, give up chocolate. Read your devotional. Play Lent Madness. Pray before the kids or pets wake up or after they go to sleep. Commit daily acts of kindness. Take that daily walk. You may feel like you are doing something simple. But in our simplicity, we are participating in the cosmic work of Christ. In bringing intentionality into those things we can control, we bring intentional focus on those things we cannot control – those things only God can fight for us. Our forty-day journey is not the same as Christ’s. But taking this journey aligns us with the work of Christ, and helps us claim the light in a world overwhelmed by darkness. May God bless our Lent, and make our Lent holy. Amen.
[i] Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006), 51.
[ii] Hauerwas, 55.