Last Sunday’s readings (the First Sunday of Lent for the Western Church) were stories of destruction turned into rescue and peril into triumph. Noah, at God’s urging, saves a remnant of Creation and receives God’s covenantal promise. Jesus, upon being baptized, is immediately (euthus, one of Mark’s favorite words) driven into the wilderness (the verb, ekballein, suggests being tossed, hurled, or expelled, as in an exorcism) where he is unsuccessfully tempted by Satan before being waited upon by angels.
This week – with the Revised Common and Catholic lectionaries diverging – peril and destruction are nearer than ever. In Mark 8:31-38, Jesus calls Peter “Satan,” for advising against the path of suffering, death and resurrection. It doesn’t help that the phrase, “pick up your cross,” has lost its terrifying charge over the centuries. We might have to try a contemporary paraphrase, something like: “renounce your citizenship, lie down willingly on your waterboard, and die.” Yes, there’s the promise of the Father coming in glory with his angels, but Jesus makes plain you can’t get there from here except through the valley of death (not its shadow, mind you, but the real, mortal, unavoidable deal).
Catholics hear Mark’s transfiguration account (which frightened Peter enough to leave him muttering that nonsense about tents), preceded by Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac at God’s command. “Terror on the mountain,” is how I once heard this episode called, and even if Isaac squeaks though in the end (reader’s note: whenever someone’s name is repeated in short order, as in “Abraham, Abraham,” “Moses, Moses,” or “Saul, Saul,” it’s time to listen good and hard.), Abraham has his knife out and ready.
Times are perilous in 2009. Millions of Americans have lost their jobs in the past year, the Dow Jones has lost nearly half its value, and this year’s schemes to jump start an economic recovery will quadruple the national deficit.
And that’s just the U.S. The virus of instability incubated in American lending institutions has infected the world. I received ashes on Wednesday of last week in a small village church in rural Honduras, where locals are getting used to the idea that remittances from relatives in the US are vanishing, perhaps forever. Yet the villagers were there, ahead of me in line, waiting to have their foreheads daubed with a cross of ashes, to be reminded of their humble origin, their certain mortality.
It’s disturbing contrasting my poor Lenten efforts at simplicity and penitence to the struggles of campesinos in one of the poorest states of a very poor country. What hardships I undergo in Lent are chosen and brief, while theirs are imposed and enduring. The growing burden of suffering in the US still pales in comparison to the immense historical and present weight borne by the peoples of Latin America. Yet we’re called into this mystery together, as a body, as Christ’s body, and I can hope to share some small part of their greater wisdom in the traditional practices of prayer, fasting and alms giving.
Lent has never been about making oneself lovable in the eyes of God. That was and is forever beyond our control. What the practices of Lent can do is cast away the inessentials, those parts of ourselves so precious to us, so ridiculously extraneous from any other perspective. It takes a shipwreck in deep water for a rich man to see what hindrances bags of gold are. It takes near-drowning to persuade him to let them sink so he may live, to hurl them into the sea as Christ was hurled into the wilderness.
In so doing, I may come closer to sharing the lives of my rural Honduran mentors in faith, who evangelize me through the testimony of their struggle. I may come closer to you, whose silent pain I know nothing of, being so taken up by my own petty concerns. I may come closer to Christ, whose wounds still bleed for me and for the many.
May your Lenten observances bring you to the spiritual brink of disaster. (I pray they don’t bring you to material disaster, though, if they do, I pray the rest of us fully embody what the Body of Christ does in such times.) It profits us everything to gain our souls in exchange for what we wrongly imagined was the world.