Reality Therapy

First Sunday in Lent
Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7
Psalm 32:1-11
Romans 5:12-19
Matthew 4:1-11

Lent is as much about seeing well as it is about doing good, which is to say it is about learning to see ourselves as we truly are. It is a kind of reality therapy for the self-deceived and morally apathetic, which is to say, most of us.

It begins on Ash Wednesday by disabusing us of our easy rejections of finitude, reminding us that our destiny, at least penultimately, is to return to the earth from which we have come. In the ensuing 40 days, Lent offers to reveal to us all of those idols that have captured our hearts and diverted our attention from the things that most matter. It confronts us not simply with our self-destructive habits, but with our abject inability to do anything about them. Most importantly, it reminds us that all of our brokenness has been taken up into the grace of the triune God, who through the cross of Jesus makes possible an infinitely better way.

Each of this week’s lectionary texts demonstrates at least one of these emphases. The familiar story from Genesis, of what Christians in the Latin speaking west have called the “fall,” puts our proclivity toward idolatry, especially in the form of self-worship, on full display. Our primordial ancestors’ rejection of the original peace of God’s good Creation in favor of self-rule reminds us of the cost of our uncritical aspirations toward autonomy and limitlessness.

The story from Matthew of Jesus’s rejection of all those forms of power that would make him a hero, rather than a savior, stands in sharp contrast to Adam and Eve’s “no thanks, we got this” response to God’s gift. Paul, finally, reminds us that Jesus’s lifelong embrace of God’s call to holiness, culminating in his death on a Roman cross, stands over against Adam’s disobedience as the portal to our reception of and participation in God’s work to heal Creation.

It is Psalm 32, though, that speaks most forcefully to the realities of Lent, both to those vicious ones it uncovers and those life-giving ones into which it invites us. The text lends itself to being read antiphonally, and that back-and-forth structure characterizes both its theology and its suitability as a portal into Lent.

Through baptism we join the happy ones “whose transgression is forgiven / whose sin is covered.” Yet at the same time, we continue to bear within us the wounds of sin that is often in one way or another “hidden”—by self-deception, self-righteousness, or just plain shame.

Perhaps we experience it in our bodies, in ways similar to the Psalmist, who writes of groaning over his weakness as his body wastes away. Or perhaps we do not notice it at all, going about life blissfully ignorant of sin’s presence. Whether or not we feel its drag, it is there all the same, if not pushing down on us like a weight then at the very least diverting our attention from living our lives as the gifts they are.

The Psalm names the several means by which we can discover and receive the medicine that will heal these wounds: confession, contemplative prayer, counsel, instruction, and finally, joyful worship. This is less a catalogue than a word of exhortation from a friend who has experienced pain like our own, and found a measure of healing she wishes to share. It is reminiscent in some respects of Martin Luther’s description of Christianity as “one beggar telling another where to find bread.”

That we cannot do without friends like this is serendipitous, for the antiphonal structure of the Psalm serves one further function: it reminds us that the Lenten pilgrimage is one we make in the company of others. Lent is for each of us, even as it is at the same time for all of us. Though the journey requires us to examine ourselves and acknowledge our brokenness, we do so in the midst of friends likewise engaged. It is they who remind us that because we live always in the presence of God’s grace, we need not fear even the most discomfiting truths about ourselves.

Thanks be to God.

One Response to “Reality Therapy”

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  1. Phil says:

    Joel, thanks for your thoughts, especially your very first thought, which spoke to me the loudest. Right at the top you said…

    “Lent is as much about seeing well as it is about doing good…”

    I wonder if sometimes we of Catholic heritage, over thinkers that we tend to be, are too often in such a rush to decide what we should be seeing that we miss the seeing itself.

    It seems that seeing well is an act of surrender, just as love is. To pick up a handful of dirt and observe it closely, really see it, be with it, and perhaps become it, requires setting aside our obsessive focus on the “story of me” and allowing it to be replaced by reality, God’s kingdom. Sounds a lot like love, eh?

    When we accept the invitation to “die and be reborn” it doesn’t matter who we love, it matters only that we love. Seeing well seems another path to the same destination, and perhaps again it matters not so much what we see, but rather how well we see, how fully we commit ourselves to the act of observing. Whether it’s love, or seeing, perhaps the target matters much less than the act itself.

    I know that you addressed quite a bit more in your article, but that’s the part I was able to see the best, the first line. Thanks for stirring that up.

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