By Dan Edwards
Mark’s story of the temptation in the desert is fast moving and concise. After Jesus’ grace-filled experience at the River Jordan where he heard God call him beloved, and the Holy Spirit descended on him like a dove, things take a quick turn in another direction.
Mark says, “the Spirit immediately drove him into the wilderness.” One preacher says “The Spirit morphs (from a sweet dove) into a . . . pecking, beating bird nightmare that sends Jesus fleeing into the desert.” This isn’t the dove on your Christmas tree. It’s something by Alfred Hitchcock with Jesus in the place of Tippi Hedren.
Wrestling demons in the desert for 40 days wasn’t Jesus’ idea. In fact, he was against it. And the experience probably did not change his mind. He went on to author the prayer, “Lead us not into temptation” – in other words, let’s not do that again. Since Jesus’ time in the desert corresponds to our observance of Lent, we may take comfort in noting that he wasn’t thrilled about the idea himself.
In a progressive young church back East, on Ash Wednesday, the priest imposes the ashes with one hand then immediately washes them off with the other to remind the people they live in the resurrection. She reduces our reflection on sin and death to about 3 seconds, and rushes back to the happy thoughts. I once heard a priest say that rather than giving up anything for Lent, people should just take some quiet time enjoying God.
Some of us don’t want to observe Lent. That’s ok. Jesus didn’t want to go there either. In Scripture, the desert means the place we do not want to go. But immediately after his life changing encounter with God’s love, that’s precisely where Jesus was compelled to go.
Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron titled one of her books, “Go to the places that scare you.” That’s what the Spirit made Jesus do, and that is what the Spirit presses us to do as well – to go to the places we would rather avoid because something essential happens there. That’ s where our religion gets real.
The danger in religion is that it so easily becomes escapist. It so easily becomes a flight into pleasant fantasies. That kind of religion is fragile, unstable, and undependable because reality keeps breaking in on us.
Shallow optimistic religion continues to continue to pretend and then we get the shadow on the x-ray, then “something amiss” on the MRI, or our self-image as one of the good guys is marred by a moral lapse. Reality insistently intrudes on a false faith. The Holy Spirit turns on a dime from a happy feeling into reality forcing us to confront the demons. And that’s a good thing.
Psychologist William James called the false faith of optimistic denial “the religion of healthy mindedness.” He said two world religions are particularly effective at getting people through life, precisely because they are not “healthy minded” – because they acknowledge what we try to deny. Those two religions are Buddhism and Christianity. We observe penitential seasons to make room for the minor key, to paint with the darker tone. That keeps our faith true enough, deep enough, rich enough to help us through all kinds of times.
Our faith isn’t about living in an oasis. It’s about living in the desert with wild beasts, but that’s where we meet the ministering angels. Psalm 84 says when we pass through the desert valley, that’s where we find springs.
Ours is a faith for the hard times – not a naïve promise that if we get our minds right, everything will be just fine. Observing a penitential season runs counter to our culture. Secular society and some brands of Christianity assume that it’s all about feeling good all the time.
Feminist theologian Dorothee Soelle writes:
“(W)hat will become of a society in which. . . suffering (is) avoided . . .; . . . in which a marriage . . . smoothly ends in divorce; . . . relationships between generations are dissolved as quickly as possible, without a struggle, without a trace; periods of mourning are “sensibly” short; with haste the handicapped . . . are removed from the house, and the dead from the mind.”
Soelle says that in such a society “even joy and happiness can no longer be experienced”. Suffering and joy are two sides of one coin. To anesthetize ourselves against one is to anesthetize ourselves against the other. “No cross, no crown,” Spurgeon used to say. We might say, “No Lent, no Easter.”
Much so-called “spirituality” tries to insulate us from pain. Meditation is reduced to relaxation exercises. Contemplation is pretending we are in a pleasant place. Prayer is an incantation to drive away our hardships; and faith is positive thinking.
Today’s lesson teaches us a very different spirituality. Liberation theologian Jon Sobrino defines spirituality as “a fundamental willingness to face what is real” – including the realities of pain and injustice.
Archbishop Rowan Williams says, “the Spirit connects us to reality in a way that bridge[s] . . . the gulf between suffering and hope . . . confronting suffering without illusion but also without despair.” Our brand of spirituality dares to see things straight on, to face the joy and the sorrow alike, to acknowledge our failings and celebrate God’s love.
Lent is the time of the desert. We go there because God is present in every situation. When we are in the desert with the ravenous beasts, the ministering angels will be there too.
So, I invite you to the observance of a holy Lent. I invite you to a deeper awareness of life. And I invite you to a quiet confidence
that God is with you –
always there to strengthen and sustain you –
always there to love, forgive, empower, or console –
always at your side.
The Rt. Rev. Dan Edwards is the retired X Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Nevada.