Second Sunday of Lent
‘Tis a gift to be simple,
‘tis is a gift to be free,
‘tis a gift to come down
where we ought to be.
And when we find ourselves
In the place just right,
‘twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gain’d
to bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed.
To turn, turn will be our delight
Till by turning, turning, we come ‘round right.
Knees bent, ashes smudged on foreheads, letting go and taking up – the work of Lent is no less messy yet necessary than the work of a farmer in early spring, muck boots stuck in the mire of a melted grey snow, calloused hands reaching low to pull aside the mulch that blanketed the garden beds, spades and shovels and yes, even hands, turning the soil, loosening it after a winter freeze, not unlike the turning of Lent, the turning, turning, re-turning to the God we had covered with pretense and pride; the God we had covered with self-sufficiency only to discover that God would not be covered, but rather, it is we who are covered and it is we who must be uncovered and laid bare. It is we who must be tilled again so that the seed of faith can take root and lift it’s head through the soil toward the Light. It is we who must repent, who must turn.
Perhaps humility is the virtue of Lent.
Peter has proclaimed that Jesus is the Messiah. He is right, Jesus is the Messiah, but not the Messiah of Peter’s imagination. When Jesus very openly teaches that he must undergo great suffering, be rejected, killed and then, on the third day be raised, I wonder if it was not Peter’s puffed up view of himself that took over, grabbed Jesus, and took him aside in an attempt to put the Messiah in his place? After all, Peter was the one who had gotten the answer to Jesus’ question right only minutes earlier, and his bravado was primed. Peter’s ego takes over, making way for Jesus to react.
Jesus did not cower behind Peter or merely dismiss him. Rather, Jesus corrected Peter harshly. “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things.” True humility does not debase one’s sanctity, gifts, talents or accomplishments, but rather, true humility possesses an element of courage that is characterized by complete submission to the will of God. Obedient even to death, Jesus is humility personified.
Peter, however, is thinking about himself. The way of Jesus has become quite popular. Crowds are surrounding Jesus and the disciples. The church is full, so to speak. The choir has new voices and the food pantry is overflowing with donations. The line of recipients is exceedingly long on distribution days. The end of the year report will look good to the Bishop. Why mess up a good thing? Why make things complicated? Why suffer? For Peter’s imagination to be unearthed, the spade of truth must first turn his thinking upside down.
But Peter doesn’t turn. It is Jesus who turns and, looking straight into the eyes of his disciples, seeing these misfit ones he has called to follow him, Jesus publicly puts Peter and the disciples in their proper places. Satan of the wilderness has shown up in the person of Peter, and if Peter is to be the rock upon which the church is built, if Peter is to be the one who will feed the lambs of Jesus, if Peter will ever comprehend the plan of God through Jesus, he must be brought low.
The ensuing proclamation of Jesus turns sight, thought, imagination, reason, life itself upside down as certainly as the ground is turned upside down to ready itself for seed. Jesus must suffer. Peter must be humbled. The world is about to be changed, history is about to enter a new age, an age in which pride does not rule. Those who would serve this King must deny themselves and take up the cross of humility.
C.S. Lewis has famously said that “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.” He writes:
Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call “humble” nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, swarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody. Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intellectual chap who took a real interest in what you said to him. If you dislike him, it will be because you feel a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all. (Mere Christianity, 128)
Humility is not about self degradation; rather, humility is the recognition that in order to live, we must depend on many others – and not only on other humans, but also on plant and animal, air and soil, the very substance we are formed from and to which we will return. Indeed, not only do we depend on others, but our lives depend on the sacrifice of others. When we come face to face with our place on this earth, a certain attitude of humility and gratitude permeates our being; we learn that we depend on the death of others, and indeed, others depend on our deaths. Faithfulness falls down from the cross and springs up out of the tomb.
Jesus takes hold of us and disrupts our easy lives. Life under the lordship of this Jesus will humble us. For in the end, humility is not sought out, but it finds us when we are faithful to follow a suffering God. Like the clods of earth that are broken by a sharp spade in order to receive the seed, we are broken open by a God who loves us enough to humble us, so that, in time, we are raised from our bended knees to stretch out our hands to a suffering world because Jesus first stretched out his arms on the hard wood of the cross.