By Paul Wheatley
“When the priest takes the basket from your hand … before the altar of the Lord your God, you shall make this response before the Lord …: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor.”
I realize that as your priest trying to serve as a good example to you this Lent, I probably shouldn’t say what I’m about to say, but since I decided to give up lying for Lent, I’ll just be out with it: I think Lent is miserable. All the fasting, and the giving up of the things in life we really like, be it sweets, or meat, or a good beer or glass of wine, or [heaven forbid] television [or Facebook] … although sometimes it can be spiritually fruitful or helpful for me to drop a few pounds or establish a few additional disciplines in my life, most of the time it’s just miserable.
Now, before you start your letter-writing campaign to the bishop, allow me a little further explanation: I am not saying that fasting and Lent are fruitless or meaningless spiritual practices. Quite the opposite, actually. Rather, I mean to say what I said to you all a year ago on Ash Wednesday: that amid the fasting, the penitential ashes imposed upon the front of my head, and the holy call to a holy Lent, I find myself striving to enact [in these disciplines] a form of self-strengthening and self-improvement, but instead I often find something much more miserable and intolerable. I find myself: the one thing from which I cannot fast.
In our Gospel reading, we find Jesus, as the reading says, “full of the Holy Spirit,” returning from his baptism at the Jordan River, where the voice from on high declared him to be the Beloved Son of the Father: the one upon whom the Spirit rested in the form of a dove. We find him now led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And we hear of his fasting for 40 days, and as it says, “when those forty days were ended, he was hungry.” And it is into this well-wrought hunger that the devil begins his temptations.
For the many of us who come to our Lenten fasts as some sort of religious do-over for our failed New Year’s resolutions, this might come as a surprise. While in these 40 days of fasting we are liturgically participating in a re-enactment of our Lord’s journey in the wilderness, we are mistaken if we think our fast is of the same sort as his.
Jesus’ fast was both a temptation and a demonstration: “If you are the Son of God,” but the weakness Jesus knows in his flesh is a weakness taken by choice, by virtue of his emptying himself into human flesh. Our weakness, on the other hand, is ours not by choice but by inheritance. So then, too, our fasts cannot be a demonstration: a crucible in which we somehow melt away all our vices and find underneath it all the true virtuous Christian we are at our deepest core. Our fasts and Lenten disciplines are not the place where we somehow harness the potential for holiness that is always there, latent, and through practice and hard work take one more step up the ladder of godliness, what I’ve referred to before as polishing off the good silver for Easter.
On the contrary, when my fasts are done, I find that beneath my comforts and my satisfactions, my full belly and my rested, well-entertained mind, there lies a person that has remained hidden, secreted away for most of the year: starved, moody, short-tempered, and ever-striving for applause. We find that when the creature comforts are gone we see another person, a person that remains secret from ourselves most of the time. This is the value of our Lenten fast.
For it is not until I see myself without bread that I can see how “bread alone” has left me starved, and how, too often, “bread alone” is all I eat. So we journey into the wilderness with Jesus, driven ourselves by the Holy Spirit to learn again our weaknesses, and we find there that weakness is the path we must walk to know the Son of God.
The wilderness wandering is a continual theme in the story of Israel and the patriarchs. No doubt Jesus’ 40-day sojourn in the wilderness reminds us of the 40 years Moses led the people through the desert. But Abraham also journeyed in the wilderness, as did Isaac, and Jacob. And Jacob, the wandering Aramean from our first reading, found himself in the wilderness, wandering home after 14 years spent laboring for Laban to receive his daughters in marriage, and just before he came to the Jordan to cross into the land God had promised his grandfather Abraham and his father Isaac, Jacob faced a wilderness trial alone at the banks of the Jabbok River.
Jacob had been full of potential, always able to bring about through cunning and guile the blessing God had given Abraham and Isaac by his grace. Jacob’s name itself revealed that potential: “Heel-grabber,” a wrestling term which had characterized the cunning with which he had stolen his brother Esau’s blessing not once but twice.
But there on the border of the land he had been promised, Jacob was tested. Esau — who vowed to kill Jacob the next time they saw each other — that same Esau heard of Jacob’s return and came to meet him with 400 fighting men in tow. And Jacob sent gifts ahead, ever wrestling to appease his brother and protect the blessing: his wives and 12 children who would become the 12 tribes of Israel. And so he separates himself from them, in hopes of protecting his wives, his children, and his heritage if Esau were to take revenge.
In that moment Jacob was alone. He was alone with his fears, alone with his doubts, and Jacob had a wilderness trial of his own to endure. A man — or was it an angel? — comes and wrestles with Jacob throughout the night. For many of us, as it did for Jacob, this may have nothing to do with Lent. Sometimes the circumstances of life are more than enough trial to bring us wrestling through the night, fighting for hope, or faith, or life itself as we face the wilderness through which we go.
And there in wrestling through the night, Jacob again strives for the blessing, and a strange dialogue begins. You can read it in Genesis 32: “What is your name?” asks the man when Jacob demands a blessing. Jacob’s striving, his lifetime of grabbing at heels, has at once by this question been laid bare, and only then is he given a new name: Israel — the one who strives with God, for whom God strives. A change of his character and call are enacted — given by grace — but not without another gift: Jacob, Israel for whom God strives, would not be blessed as a strong and striving champion, but as one conquered, weak, and put into weakness in his wilderness wrestling match.
That man, the angel, whom Jacob later acknowledges as God in the flesh, gave Jacob a gift: He touched his hip and put it out of socket. He gave Jacob the gift of weakness — a gift he never sought and would never have wanted. And from there, Jacob arose, and limped toward the confrontation with Esau. God made it painfully clear in Jacob’s journey through the wilderness to home that God is the giver of the blessing. God strives for him. In other words, it is into our weakness that God brings his strength.
So too Jesus, on the cusp of beginning his earthly ministry, is a new Jacob, a new Israel, and a new Adam.
And it had to be so. Because from the beginning, from the day Adam went to the tree and was put out from the garden into the wilderness, man has been wandering in barren places, longing for the ability to turn stones into bread; striving to know power, worldly authority, and glory; and to claim God’s special protection against all enemies and harm, “lest you strike your foot against a stone.”
St. Ambrose of Milan said it best: “It is fitting that it be recorded that the first Adam was cast out of Paradise into the desert, that you may observe how the second Adam returned from the desert to Paradise.”
Adam takes from the tree forbidden fruit that he might satisfy his hunger, and then takes leaves from the tree to hide his shame. Jesus, in the desert, is stripped of all, naked before the tempter. Adam goes from the tree into the desert. Jesus goes from the desert to the tree — the cross of sacrifice. He gives himself and takes nothing, that he might clothe you and I, Adams and Eves clinging to our fig leaves, with his clothing of mercy and grace.
Jesus — who when tempted to make stones into bread, remembers that the Word of God could be his bread — Jesus is the Word of the Father, the Bread of life, and the stone which the builders rejected. Jesus — when tempted to test God’s protection, lest he dash his foot against a stone, would go to the cross unprotected from harm, and there dash death itself against the stones.
So let us journey into the wilderness to walk the path of weakness and find there the Son of God. As Jesus lived “not by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God,” so we too have the encouragement from the Apostle that “The word is near you … if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Jesus, the Word made flesh, is near us in temptation because he was tempted.
So let us journey to the wilderness that we might know the limping Jacob inside each of us. And let us come to the table on this day of feasting to taste the stone which the builders rejected, now made for us the bread of life. For Jesus, the Son of God, would go from the temple in weakness, and be crucified. And in 40 days from today we will remember him risen. And we can anticipate it today in the Eucharistic feast. “And Jesus was led by the Spirit for forty days in the wilderness, tempted by the devil.”
The Rev. Paul Wheatley is instructor of New Testament at Nashotah House Theological Seminary.