Lent with Hope
I remember my first Lent and just how long 40 days seemed to be. Each day dragged on. Fasting from social media freed my schedule from mindless scrolling, yet logging in to Facebook was a reflex, a habit hard to break. Yet by the end of it, I found my life rooted in deeper rhythms of prayer and less invested in the numerous pitfalls of social media. Here at the start of my seventh annual practice of Lent, the beginning of the fast feels like a relief. I know how temporary it is and my soul craves the freedom Lent provides from distractions that have found an inordinate place in my life. (Knowing that fasts don't carry over on Sundays doesn't hurt either!)
The traditional 40 days of Lent comes from several biblical passages, the most famous of which is Jesus' 40 days of fasting and temptation in the wilderness, recounted for us in this week's Gospel reading: "And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him" (Mark 1:12-13 NRSV). Often, the feeling at the start of Lent is that we are going to be like Jesus. We are going to muster all of our powers of self-will, determination, and self-control to wrestle our passions and temptations to the ground. While it is true that we are following Christ's pattern, focusing on our own efforts during Lent misses a key theological component of this season.
I first noticed this when I read the Old Testament reading for this First Sunday in Lent. It is from another famous 40-days story in the Bible, namely, the story of the Flood during which it rained for 40 days and nights. Yet the passage is set at the end of the 40 days after the trial is over. It focuses on God's promise to never again judge the Earth in the same way: "God said to Noah and to his sons with him, 'As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth'" (Genesis 9:8-11). When Lent begins, we spend time meditating God's judgment and repenting for our sins. Here, we start Lent with a passage that declares God's promise not to destroy all flesh on the earth. We do not engage in the practice of repentance and reflection to avoid God's judgment.
The New Testament reading drives this home by emphasizing the Ark's nature as an instrument of salvation, of rescuing God's people from the destruction of the Flood: "God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water" (1 Peter 3:20). St. Peter connects this to the work of Christ, which during Lent we prepare to celebrate. "For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit" (1 Peter 3:18). Christians share in Christ's death and resurrection through baptism: "And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ" (1 Peter 3:21). During Lent, we are not looking to earn God's favor. We already have it in Christ. God has already forgiven us for the sins we are confessing. The point of Lent is for us to live into the reality of who we are. It is to rid our lives of the sins already defeated in Christ.
As we enter into our 40 days, we do so as those who follow Jesus, who has already defeated temptation and sin. Lent is not our attempt to bend ourselves to our own wills or to earn God's favor. It is simply an invitation to live in reality, to recognize who we are, and reorient our lives to the work Christ accomplished both in His 40-day wilderness fast and on the cross. The Good News is already proclaimed: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news" (Mark 1:15).
Because of Christ's work, we can confidently pray Psalm 25: "To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul. O my God, in you I trust; do not let me be put to shame; do not let my enemies exult over me. Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame; let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous. Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long. Be mindful of your mercy, O Lord, and of your steadfast love, for they have been from of old. Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O Lord! Good and upright is the Lord; therefore he instructs sinners in the way. He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way" (Psalm 25:1-9).