Second Sunday of Lent
More than forty years since its first publication, Walter Brueggemann’s The Prophetic Imagination has lost none of its urgency. In opposing the biblically-grounded imagination to what he calls “royal consciousness” – that system of individual affluence, concealed oppression, and spiritual smugness in service to the powers of the day – Brueggemann reminds us that before we can live into the reign of God, we must first imagine what that reign might look like. This presumes, however, that we can sufficiently free our imagination from the narcotizing grip of royal consciousness to recognize and lament our fears, shared suffering, and mortality. “It is the vocation of the prophet,” Brueggemann writes, “to keep alive the ministry of imagination, to keep on conjuring and proposing alternative futures to the single one the king wants to urge as the only thinkable one.”
Royal consciousness conspires to numb us everywhere and always, even in this season of Lent, a time of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving meant to prepare us for the celebration of Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection. I succumb to the power of that consciousness when I mistake Lent as boot camp for my weak and wayward will. Not that my will doesn’t need a major overhaul, something that – with God’s grace – would be a most welcome consequence of my Lenten practices. True metanoia, however, depends far more on imagination than on the will. In order to embody God’s word and live into God’s reign, I need the necessary grace to imagine other ways of living, of thinking, and of desiring than the stale and lifeless habits of the dominant culture.
This Sunday’s readings invite us to open our imagination to the contours of God’s reign. In our first reading, a childless, seventy five-year old Abram is asked to imagine traveling to a distant land and founding a great nation. Unlike those of us schooled in the calculus of worldly practicality, Abram agrees. Later, having survived a series of misadventures and an unexpected blessing but still childless, Abram has a vision of the Lord comparing the number of his descendants to the stars. Once again, Abram “…believed the Lord, and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness” (Gen 15:6). No doubt Abram had to will himself to believe that promise. More importantly, though, he had to begin, however dimly, to imagine it possible.
On this, Paul builds his argument in today’s second reading. I will (I hope) sidestep the bitter controversies over correctly interpreting Paul’s faith vs. works dichotomy. Important as such matters are, the usual exercises in talking past one another don’t liberate the imagination. They harden and confine it. I’d rather call attention to the leap that Paul, lifelong student of Torah, makes in imagining righteousness for the gentiles outside the law. Paul didn’t think or will his way to this new understanding. He had, instead, an encounter with the risen Christ leading to “something like scales” falling from his eyes. The imagination – as opposed to fantasy – grows poorly in the meager soil of abstraction but thrives in the rich loam of lived experience. It’s less about having the right ideas than opening one’s eyes to an underlying reality, as in the synoptic accounts of the Transfiguration where what changes isn’t Christ’s nature, but the way his disciples see him.
In today’s reading from the gospel of John, poor Nicodemus is left baffled by Jesus’s metaphoric wordplay. Unlike the Samaritan woman in the following chapter, he clings to the literal, the familiar, the first idea that pops into his constrained consciousness. He can’t get his head around verbal ambiguities lost to us when the original Greek is translated into English. When Jesus says gennēthē anōthen, Nicodemus hears “born again,” but not the equally valid alternative, “born from above.” The various meanings of pneuma – wind, spirit, breath – blow past him in gusts of irony. He won’t grasp the implications of hypsōthēnai – to be lifted up or to be glorified – until Jesus is lifted up on the cross and rises from the tomb where Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea laid him. Jesus is asking him to unlearn what he thinks he knows in order to imagine the life present and readily available in God’s inbreaking reign.
I like to think of myself as the Samaritan woman, growing from narrow-minded tribalist (“How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me…” John 4:9) to sower of the Word, (“Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, ‘He told me everything I have ever done.’” John 9:39) in seven short utterances. In reality, I’m Nicodemus, forever missing the point hidden in what I think I understand but don’t. Lent is an opportunity to liberate the imagination, trusting in God’s power to free us from captivity to the royal consciousness. Lent offers us the gift of renewed sight, for “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
What, then, must you unlearn in order to imagine the life to which God is calling you? What’s keeping you from seeing the reign of God?
Image: Bandini Pieta/The Deposition of Christ (with Nicodemus) by Michelangelo Buonarroti, Museo Dell’Opera del Duomo, Florence, Italy. The face of Nicodemus is said to be Michelangelo’s self-portrait.