The name “Lent” means “spring.” “Spring,” as in the time when the hills are green with new grass and the buds break forth with blossoms and leaves. There are lambs and calves in the pastures, and a feeling of freshness awakens in our own hearts, as the days lengthen with the promise of a new cycle of growth and creativity. So it may seem incongruous that “Lent” should also mean a season of prayer, fasting, and self-denial. If new life beginning to spring up all around us, shouldn’t we be living it up? Wouldn’t we do better just to jump on the rising wave of natural energy and ride?
I say this in all seriousness because it is not always easy for us to see a connection between the annual renewal of creation and the practice of repentance. One way I think about it is to remember something my father said to me once—“After you were born, and I saw how much joy you had, how full of life you were, I knew I had to change.” If you are a parent you may have experienced something similar. The birth of a child can be like a new birth for the parents as well. A sense of fresh possibility, a new and powerful desire to give and to love unselfishly, arises in us and flows through us in ways that can take us quite by surprise.
But then, almost without our noticing it, the sense of grace and wonder begins to fade. It’s not that nothing has changed, or that we stop being devoted to our children, but that life returns gradually to a new normal state. One day we realize that the things we were doing gladly and devotedly now feel like chores. In place of the anxieties and vexations we had when we were childless, we have new anxieties and vexations. But our way of getting vexed and anxious is just the same. And something analogous could be said about all the new beginnings of our lives: the new love affair, the new school, the new job, the move to a new town.
So maybe Lent gets its penitential character out of the recognition that if we are going to make good use of the opportunity that another spring is offering us, it is not enough to enjoy the fresh new energy that is coming to us for free. We need to meet that energy with some spiritual effort of our own. We need to break up the clods in the gardens of our hearts, and crumble the compacted crust on the surface of our minds. We need to make a seedbed where God’s gift of new life can take root and flourish. If the fresh start is going to become a lasting transformation it will be because we removed the obstacles we continually put in the way of God’s power to change us.
When Mark’s Gospel tells us that after his baptism Jesus was in the wilderness forty days, and there he was tempted by Satan, it is reminding us that initiation into a new state of being has two parts. First there is the epiphany, the ecstatic experience of communion and the gift of expanded consciousness. But if this is to become a lasting breakthrough there must be a second and much longer step, the arduous process of dissolving our resistance to the new understanding, of purging the soul of habits that no longer serve. These steps do not necessarily occur in that order. In fact, the ancient practice of the church was to take them in reverse. The Lenten season was a time of intensive spiritual labor and preparation. The 40 days of Lent corresponds to the 40 weeks of human gestation. It was a time of outer renunciation and inner discipline, and it culminated at Easter, with the moment of rebirth in the sacramental mystery of baptism.
As modern Americans our understanding of the possibilities and perils of human transformation is profoundly different from that of the people of ancient times. One indication of how this is true is that we are certain that our understanding is far superior to theirs. We take it on faith that we are saner, smarter, more reasonable and less superstitious than they were. And so we find their notion of spiritual powers that are hostile to God and destructive of her creatures distasteful and weird. We reject as exaggerated if not downright false the notion that there is in every human heart not only the potential but the innate inclination toward greed, self-deception, and violence.
And because we deny the existence of the big disease, we stay busy as beavers going after the symptoms. We have our technological fixes and our public policy proposals, our free-market solutions and our military interventions, our psychotherapeutic treatments and our pharmaceutical remedies; we have our spiritual programs and our auto-suggestive techniques. We argue with each other till we’re blue in the face about who’s right and what’s wrong. Meanwhile the human race and the planet it lives on gets sicker and sicker every day.
So what if the bible is actually correct? What if we’re all wrong? Every one of us. Deeply, fundamentally wrong. Not because God made us that way but because of some ancient and mysterious power that holds us in its sway, a congenital desire to take control of the universe and fashion an existence on our own terms, separate from and equal to God. What if we’re sinking into the quicksand because of our hardened determination to substitute our own way for God’s way, to replace God’s wisdom with our knowledge, to defend the person we imagine we are instead of becoming the person God created us to be? What if this were not something we choose, but something we fall victim to, before we even know what’s going on?
And what if to say this was not a condemnation? What if it were not intended to instill terror or heap up guilt? What if it were not meant to bully you into surrendering your freedom, but simply to say, “This is how it is—but it doesn’t have to be this way.” What would we do then? Well, we’d have to be reborn. We’d have to commit ourselves to a truly radical transformation. Not just a momentary epiphany, but a deep, lasting, and continual process of change. Change not just as individuals, but as a species. We’d have to go back almost to the very beginning and start over. Not by a spasm of destruction but by an unfolding drama of universal re-creation.
Mark’s gospel recounts the story of Jesus’ baptism and temptation in the wilderness as the beginning of just such a drama. The heavens’ splitting open and the descent of the spirit upon the waters recalls the creation of the universe in the opening chapter of Genesis. God’s words to Jesus “with you I am well-pleased,” reminds us of the refrain that punctuates the creation story, “and God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.” The description of Jesus in the wilderness, “He was with the wild animals and the angels ministered to him,” is a picture of Adam, the first man, in the Garden. And who did Adam meet in the garden, but the serpent, the tempter.
And here the drama turns against script. Mark does not give us any details of the contest between Jesus and Satan, but he does tell us what comes next. Jesus emerges from the desert not with the bad news of human weakness and punishment for disobedience, but with good news of God’s victory. What we are given here is not the story of one man’s spiritual quest, but the opportunity of new life for the human race. At the river the Spirit anointed Jesus as the beloved Son—the first-born of a new humanity. In the wilderness that transformation was tested and proved able to overcome the ancient adversary with all his tricks and disguises. Now into Galilee he comes, with a message for everyone: It’s time. God’s just rule is here. Turn your life around completely, and believe this—I just met Satan. And you know what?—he’s no match for you and me.