Lent is here. Part of me hates Lent. It’s the part of myself that wants a life of comfort. It’s the part of me that wants to have no limitations. It’s the part of me that seeks pleasure and the part of me that is turned inward toward myself. If it were left up to this part of myself – this pleasure seeking drive to rule everything I might not have the strength to get out of bed in the morning….and this may be part of our problem as a culture. It takes energy to have a relationship. It takes another drive within us. The drive that searches for the truth – the part of us that wants to know. We have to want to know the truth about another in order to have a relationship – especially any kind of friendship. But, if we have no strength, no energy for relationships and we seek only our own pleasure and comfort we are as a culture embracing a dark fate – for a true culture can only be formed from relationship. A little over 100 years ago, German philosopher Friedrich Nietzche famously proclaimed that “God is dead” as he already looked out over the decline of religion in the world. I am reading this book for Lent, Love is Stronger Than Death” by the American philosopher, Peter Kreeft. In it, he seems to explain how this decline of religion has lead us to what St. John Paul II has labeled a “culture of death.” Here it is: “When God is dead, death is God.” In other words, if we are not driven to love the truth that is bigger than ourselves – that there is some best most absolutely wonderful Being and Source of all Goodness – God, than we will find ourselves bowing before the only thing that still limits our over-inflated sense of self: death. It is the great equalizer that can still inspire fear. Like death, Lent comes in and limits me – but I can push death out of my focus – maybe I’ll have a long life. If I take Lent seriously I am confronted with limitations today. Therefore part of me seems to hate Lent.
But, Lent can give me more time and more energy to care about others for I am not so trapped inside my own desires. When I seem to have the energy to consider relationships, I am happy to find the truth that the world is greater than I am. Lent is like a retreat, even a silent retreat, which I think is why we always start Lent off with this reading of Jesus fasting in the desert and being tempted. This was Christ’s retreat. Retreats can be intimidating. There is so much time to think about the questions we have been pushing to the side. Questions about love, family, what makes us who we are, how we have failed, where we have been successful, who God is in our life, and heaven, and hell, and judgment, and death. Well, what did Christ think about – what questions if any went through His mind – what did He consider? Before we think of that, I want to go back to our opening prayer. We asked God to grant us that we might grow in understanding the riches hidden in Christ and pursue their effects through worthy conduct. Well, we can only understand Christ because He became man for us. His deepest treasures are only available to us through His being man. That is where we should look. In His humanity we find such treasure for it is there where we find our relationship with Jesus. In His humanity, God has made Himself relevant for all time, we uncover God’s desire for intimacy with us. The rainbow in the first reading demonstrated to man that God would not destroy us by flood. In the flesh of Jesus we have the sign that He will be vulnerable to us. In one sense, Nietzche is right – God did die. He died on the Cross in His love for us. Lent is like a little death, and it is like a retreat because it brings us into the meaning of our relationships.
Back to the desert – what does Jesus think about? I think He thought about death. Not all the time. Not exclusively. I think He prayed to the Father and considered humanity, but when He is visited by the devil – all three temptations involve death somehow. Jesus is without food and He is tempted to manipulate nature to provide for Himself. If Jesus never eats, He would die of starvation. Don’t wait around any longer for the providence of the Father – just turn these rocks into bread. Next, he challenges Jesus to throw Himself down from the lofty height. Perhaps the devil thought Jesus might have doubts about His immortality….would He really receive the help of the Angels? Don’t wait to find out on the cross. Put it all to the test now. Those angels will catch you and if they don’t – better to have it all over quickly. Last, the devil offers all the power, the authority, the glitter of the world – what he thinks Christ is really after — the devil could not have believed Jesus wanted to have us as His brothers and sisters. Take all these puny creatures as your slaves in your kingdom without having to die at all. Just worship me. But Christ refuses to submit to Satan and He makes room for humanity to live in Him and to reject evil in all its forms.
Lent is a time to go into the desert with Christ and to find Him. It’s the oldest seeming cliché in the book to say that the world has decided it can do well enough without God. It is the second oldest seeming cliché to admit that it has failed. God seems far away for only one reason: sin. Jesus has provided for us and yet we ignore Him….and so we fear death and have to practice indifference to it to cope and get by. We distract ourselves from death with pleasure, we try to shock ourselves out of our boredom with the news – which is mostly the tales of other people dying, we hope for a remedy for mortality in our technology (which helps distract us further from the meaninglessness to a life without God), we pretend to be brave in our cynicism, and in the end we find ourselves in another Lent…in the desert with Jesus again who longs for us to wake up. That is the meaning of “Repent and believe in the Gospel.” Death is real, but He accepted it and embraced it and conquered it.
So, this Lent what is there to do? Find ways to stay connected to Jesus this forty days. In our soul there are two drives: one for truth and one for happiness. We search for adventure (with our tough-minded, truth-seeking self) and long for creature comforts (with our tender-minded, happiness seeking self). The thing about happiness is that it often comes when we aren’t seeking it for its own sake. This Lent, dive into the adventure of deeper prayer. Let’s say you set aside five minutes before bed to pray silently while kneeling down on your hands and knees or staring at a crucifix. Don’t watch your watch to ensure that you keep from going longer. Only glance at it to ensure that you’ve prayed at least your five minutes. If you love food, consider giving up snacks and yet don’t pile on an extra two helpings at each meal. If you get a special Lenten devotional book or magazine, use it and then journal about it. Was there something that Christ wants you to think on a little more? Jesus wants us to entrust ourselves to Him. Go to confession twice during Lent and say the rosary in a way that the repetition of the prayers drives you into the desert. For its not about the comfort of the images of the mysteries, but in offering yourself as the friend of Jesus, even the slave of Christ who will do anything for Him….as you start with just these little things….and He has you and me without any help from the devil..because He is God and He is man.