Monday, February 15, 2016

On Lent and Love: Temptation in the Wilderness

Olivia Hamilton
Episcopal Chaplaincy at Harvard

February 14, 2016 – Lent 1C

Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone! It seems strange that Valentine’s Day should fall within the season of Lent this year, and let alone on a Sunday, but alas the fact that we have an early Easter, coupled with the one in seven odds that Valentine’s Day should ever fall on a Sunday, happen to have played out as such.  

Now if you’re wondering if I’m about to give a homily about the life of Saint Valentine or present a theology of romantic love, don’t worry, I’m not. We all probably agree and appreciate that to some extent, Valentine’s Day has become ensnared in consumerism, entangled with feelings of obligation, over-priced, over-sugared, and under-appreciative of the small, selfless and often mundane acts of care and affection that sustain our relationships with those we love, romantically or otherwise, over the course of time.

So, notwithstanding all of the skepticism we rightly hold toward the rituals associated with Valentine’s Day, I want to take advantage of the opportunity that presents itself today to suggest that this holy season of Lent which we’ve just entered is, in fact, all about love. And when I say love, I mean precisely the kind of love that is selfless, sustaining, unable to be packaged, bought, sold or sentimentalized.

The season of Lent opens with Ash Wednesday – a day when we are invited to embrace our human frailty rather than to run from it. A day when we are reminded that we belong to, and are beloved by God, not despite our flaws, but in fact, because of them. God, who sent Christ to walk among us as love incarnate, meets us where we are, in the midst of our brokenness. God transforms us through our sin, loving us as we try and fail and try again to do what is right, so that in turn we can love others even when they disappoint us.

Ash Wednesday is about humility – a word which comes from the Latin ‘humus’ meaning the earth or ground below us. During our Ash Wednesday liturgies then, it makes sense that we bow and kneel and together place and press our bodies against the ground. Doing so is not a posture of unworthiness or self-loathing…it is a posture that recognizes that we are of the earth and will return to the earth, and that God has given us lives which, from ashes to dust, are imbued with the potential for grace and love. We belong to and are beloved by God, and the ashes placed upon our foreheads remind us of that in a world where it’s all to easy to forget.

As Luther and I were joking earlier this week, unlike Valentine’s Day, Ash Wednesday is probably the day least likely to be co-opted by Hallmark. And can you imagine what as Ash Wednesday card might say? Roses are red, violets are blue, someday I will die, and so will you? Though it has a nice ring to it, mortality is a tough sell. Ash Wednesday is about death, yes, but it’s not about meaninglessness. It’s an opportunity, as I see it, to remember that we are beloved by God, from our first moments on earth until our last, and to reorient our lives – if even for a day – in light of that love.

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of our forty-day journey toward the cross. It’s a journey that invites us into self-reflection and self-examination about what it means to be loved by God. However, I would argue that although there’s a strong emphasis on the self, we need to be in relationship with others in order to experience and experiment with what it means to be beloved by God. In last week’s Gospel text, we encountered Jesus at the top of a mountain, being transformed and transfigured in response to God’s presence. Peter’s response, if you remember, was to build a house there, where Jesus and Moses and Elijah can stay on the mountaintop in the presence of God forever. And Christopher was right when he asked…who wouldn’t want to stay on the mountaintop? But Jesus doesn’t. He leaves the mountaintop, goes back down to where the people are, and immediately after he does, heals a small boy who we are told is shrieking, convulsing, and foaming at the mouth. This text invites us to consider that Jesus’ relationship to God is always inherently about his relationship to others. He could not stay on the mountaintop, where everything was dazzling and brilliant. Immediately after coming face to face with God, in a moment of bliss and certainty, he was plunging himself directly into the chaos of human need, coming face to face with the frailty of human bodies.

Christ’s ministry is always about relationship.

Our Gospel story this week recounts Jesus being tempted by Satan in the wilderness for forty days and forty nights. Isolated again, but this time in a parched desert rather than a splendid mountaintop. This episode follows immediately after his baptism in the Jordan, when the voice of God proclaims that Jesus is his beloved son. Jesus’ forty days in the desert is likely a familiar story for most of us, and is the scriptural basis for the forty-day period in Lent wherein we are challenged to resist temptation.

One way we could interpret this story is that it shows that in an hour when Jesus is famished, alone and tempted, his knowledge that he is beloved by God sustains him. When the devil says, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread,” Jesus replies “One does not live by bread alone.” Jesus affirms this idea that his life belongs to God, and that much more than just the air he breathes or the food he eats sustains his time on earth.

Another way of seeing the story is that the devil, by tempting Jesus, is trying to keep him in isolation. No doubt we’ve all been in situations where our temptations confine us into wildernesses of our own making that can be incredibly lonely and isolating.

The devil shows Jesus all of the kingdoms that could belong to him, but Jesus is not the kind of leader that lords his power over the nations from a position of distant, detached authority. Jesus’ authority, as we know, rests precisely in his capacity to reconcile, to heal, to reject the forces of greed and power, and to make God’s love known through selfless acts. Gaining power over others would, I think, keep him walled off and in the wilderness. He is determined not to stay there. He’s determined to be in relationship.

So how are we tempted? I think, like Jesus, we are tempted to isolate ourselves. We might do this by refusing to let others know we are suffering. We might do this by believing that we can live by bread alone, by books alone, by accomplishments or accolades alone. We might be tempted to isolate ourselves from those who are different than we are, preferring to believe that we alone are made in the image of God.

As Thomas Merton wrote in his book “No Man Is An Island,”  “The beginning of love is the will to let those we love be perfectly themselves, the resolution not to twist them to fit our own image. If in loving them we do not love what they are, but only their potential likeness to ourselves, then we do not love them: we only love the reflection of ourselves we find in them.” And it seems we do this with those we love most, but also as a culture; we are determined that we know what’s best for others even though we can’t possibly know what it is like to be them, or what wilderness they may be lost within.

So I invite you to join me in thinking of Lent as an extended dress-rehearsal. Each day, through self-reflection, and each week, when we worship together, we rehearse voicing our failure to love, and God meets us there. He meets us right where we are tempted to isolate, and in sometimes small and mundane ways, assures us that love will overcome fear, that life will overcome death. And perhaps this rehearsal will help us to resist isolation and to be more vulnerable with one another throughout the rest of the year.

From dust to dust, we belong to and are loved by God, and so is everyone else. God doesn’t need to twist us or project anything onto us; he knew us as we were formed in our mother’s wombs and will be with us in our final hours. And even as we try and fail and try again to love others, God’s love for us is steadfast.

So in light of the fact that we begin and end this season of self-examination bowed down before God not alone but together; in light of Jesus coming down off of the mountain, plunging himself into the chaos and suffering of humanity; in light of our temptation to twist others to our own image and call it love; in light of the wildernesses of isolation we find ourselves in; in light of a holy and mysterious season that resists tidy answers and can’t be summed up in a greeting card; my prayer for each of us is this:

That whatever these forty days might bring, whatever we learn about ourselves, others and God, it has everything to do with love.


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