First Sunday of Lent
Having Descended to the Heart
Once you have grown used to the incessant
prayer the pulse insists upon, and once
that throbbing din grows less diverting
if undiminished, you’ll surely want
to look around—which is when you’ll likely
apprehend that you can’t see a thing.
Terror sometimes sports an up side, this time
serves as tender, hauling you to port.
What’s most apparent in the dark is how
the heart’s embrace, if manifestly
intermittent, is really quite
reliable, and very nearly bides
as if another sought to join you there.
-Scott Cairns, from Philokalia
I’ve often wondered what thoughts ran through Noah’s head as he stood at the door of the ark and prepared to disembark. When he surveyed the scene, did a holy expletive escape from his lips as he took in the devastation? As he took his first steps onto the dry ground, the din of animals and family in the background, was he overcome by the deafening silence of a planet whose slate had been wiped clean? Did the loneliness and isolation terrify him? What did he think of the God whose divine power and jealous anger had caused such chaos?
Alone in the wilderness, with only wild animals for company, it strikes me that Jesus, too, knew something about deafening silence and loneliness. Mark’s sparse storytelling doesn’t give us any of the details that Matthew or Luke’s gospels offer. There is no reported conversation with his adversary. There is no transport to the Temple mount. We are left to fill in the blanks for ourselves about the battle raging in Jesus’ head during those long days and nights.
There is something that happens during Lent that causes us to enter into that same kind of interior space as well. When all is stripped away through practices of fasting and self-denial, and when our practices of prayer and devotion take us deeper into the heart of our lives, we find in the stillness all that we have avoided in routine of our days; that our frenetic busyness has hidden our deep anxiety, insecurity, and fearfulness. We encounter our deep helplessness in the face of our sin and the chaos of the world in which we live. It is a lonely and desert season. It is no easy work to make sense of the past or to face the claim that God has put on your life.
If that were the end of the story, we might find ourselves wondering why our lives had been spared on the ark of salvation if only to suffer in such ways. We might wonder what harm there is in succumbing to temptation. We might question why God would claim us, only then to bring us into such trial. The good news of these texts—the good news of the gospel—is that this is not the end of the story. The heartbeat of these two passages is not centered on either the chaotic devastation of the old world or the Satan who threatens to undo us. It is centered on the promise and power of the One who not only created this world and called it good, but the One who promises to protect, sustain, and restore the world and we who live in it.
“I am setting up my covenant with you, your descendants and every living being with you,” says God to Noah and his sons. “You are my Son, whom I dearly love,” says the voice of God from heaven at Jesus’ baptism. “This is the symbol of the covenant that I am making between me and you and every living thing with you, on behalf of every future generation,” says the God of the bow in the clouds. “And the heavens split open and the Spirit, like a dove, came down upon him.”
Though there is cause for despair and doubt; though we find ourselves in great weakness, with temptations within and fears without, these words remind us that in spite of all evidence to the contrary, God remains loyal to the disloyal. We have a sign that God’s intention for his creation is to end the cycle of violence and retribution with love and compassion. These words tell us that God is with us in the wilderness, giving us strength beyond our own and sending his angels to care for us.
The challenge of Lent is coming to terms with the fact that though devastation and the isolation of wilderness are far from God’s original intention for creation, it is through these terrible, harsh realities that God brings forth new life. Though the rainbow represents an unconditional promise, it also represents God’s willingness to limit God’s power and freedom for the sake of the life of the world that God so loves. It is in the self-denial of wilderness that Jesus’ obedience to the Father is proved.
These texts stand as our reminder that being drawn through death for the sake of new life is the rhythm of the gospel. The climax of the gospel towards which these stories of God’s compassionate presence, fulfilling promise, and self-denying love for a broken world points is a cross outside Jerusalem. Only insofar as we enter into this wilderness can we too experience the power of the one whose resurrection life makes each one of us new. As we walk this Lenten journey, may we not forget to notice the signs and promises of the “one who seeks to join us [here].”