I didn’t know what Lent was until I was an adult. It just wasn’t a part of our tradition.
For nearly 20 years the concepts of Mass, liturgy and Ash Wednesday were as foreign to me as a Muslim call to prayer, and just as frightening. Everyone I knew were leaving their liturgical backgrounds (Catholics, Methodists, high church Lutherans, etc.) for emotional conversion experiences, contemporary worship services, and the friendly nondescript confines of the non-denominational church. It took me many years to realize that what we were calling non-denominationalism was really just the self-assured piety of Baptist praxis with a little “God is in control” Reformed theology on the side.
In this vague fog of self-determined spirituality there was little room for the Christian calendar or things like Lent. But like all pendulums, this one was destined to swing. In the late 1990s the Ancient/Future faith movement arose, the Emergent church conferences started lighting boatloads of candles at their events, and suddenly, everything old was new again. Sturdily saved-by-grace Evangelicals I knew were suddenly sporting dirty foreheads sometime in late February, early March, and everyone was talking about what they were giving up for Lent.
A (In)Convenient Fast
By my initial observations, most Lenten privations were rather… convenient. People who constantly worried about their weight gave up carbs. Busy people gave up coffee and announcing how much harder they would have to work without the caffeine. People who with a thousand friends were giving up social media.
Having been influenced by Richard Foster’s version of the discipleship movement, I had the vague sense that this was not what fasting was for. I was happy as anyone to lose a little winter weight and tempted to give up dessert for Lent as anyone but if I was honest, none of that felt particularly spiritual. My old biases against ritual and liturgy reared their heads, but perhaps this time with a genuine question attached, where is Jesus in all of this?
Jesus is, of course, central to Easter and therefore Lent but it doesn’t start with Him. Like almost everything in Christianity, Lent is remixed version of a Jewish tradition, in this case, Passover. Thanks to Charleton Heston, we all have a little sense of what the Passover is. And thanks to Charleton Heston, we’re a little confused.
Passover, the night when the Angel of Death slaughters the firstborn of Egypt, is the last of the ten plagues in Egypt, a battle royale between Yahweh, Israel’s God and Pharaoh, Lord of the Egyptian Hosts and His great council of gods. Each of the plagues represents a battle front in a war, with one of the Egyptian gods shamed in the aftermath. Blood in the Nile representing the death of Hapi the waterbearer God, plague of frogs a humiliation to Heket the goddess of renewal with the head of a frog, flies that black out the sky, an overthrow of Khepri the Sun God. You get the picture.
And lastly, death to the High God of Egypt Himself, embodied in the Pharaoh and his bloodline in the Passover night. When the first-born son of the King dies, so dies the future of this evil dynasty itself leaving Egypt a nation without its gods, and in the ancient sense, no nation at all. Moses, the leader of slaves, liberates God’s people in the infamous crossing of the Red Sea, that story too a symbolic war cry.
God had divided the great waters two times before, once in containing the Great Deep, the archaic chaos, in the creation of the world, and once in restoring the boundaries of creation itself when Noah’s floodwaters were put back to place by the warrior’s bow in the sky. In the ancient view, the deep waters contain the embodied evils of the world, monsters and deific forces who set out to tear the world apart. When the chaotic waters divide, when dry land rises in their stead, the tortuous powers of this world are put back to their boundaries, and God’s people walk, one step at a time, toward the vague cloud of His providence.
The real story, as it always is, is the tale of oppressive systems, the promise of power, and the deceptive slavery of a world without God. Moses stands at the center of this, weak in his rhetorical abilities with no “god” to show. No temple, no statue, no pyramid. Just a voice, like an inward eternal burning flame.
He came to Pharaoh’s court from the barren wilderness outside of Midian, from his own fast. An inconvenient 40 days in the desert, mimicking the lost days of Noah’s boat at sea in the great Flood. For Moses to be the man who could have been, to be ready to return to the Egypt he both loved and hated, to rediscover the life that made him and the life he ran from, Moses had to face a most inconvenient fast. Not because he was wrong, or fat, or too addicted to coffee, but because He was preparing to meet God and liberate His people. Because a rebellion was rising within Him, a wildfire of resistance to the world as it was, a fire that calls out to be honed into irrepressible light.
Those lucky few wandering around first century Palestine listening to Jesus recognized instant allusions to Moses. The entire story of His family’s escape to Egypt to avoid Herod’s bloodthirsty massacre is a direct allusion to Baby Moses and that infamous floating basket in the middle of a similar Semitic genocide. To solidify this, on the brink of His public ministry of liberation, Jesus begins where Moses did, out in the desert on a fast.
Famously, Jesus’ 40 days ends with an encounter with evil powers as well. In the New Testament vernacular, it is with “The Accuser” or Satan who offers Jesus all the worldly power he can muster to convince Him to change allegiances. The Satan offers Jesus food, safety and power, methodically moving him up Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, hoping to throw something at him that will distract from the holy path He is about to face. He offers him the god-like promise of a world without God, and—to no surprise—Jesus refuses them all.
From this moment Jesus enters His own Passover project. We know that Jesus does not enter His Lent to purge Him of bad habits, sugar or the temptation to gossip on Facebook. Jesus enters His Lent to face down the demons, the powers of distraction, self-made heroism, and ego that threaten us all. Like Moses, Jesus’ Lent exists to return Him to Himself, ready to see God intimately in the overthrow of God’s enemies. Because a rebellion was rising within Him, a wildfire of resistance to the world as it was, a fire that calls out to be honed into irrepressible light.
A Great and Wonderful Why
Lent has been coming out of me like ketchup out of a glass bottle. I’ve been pondering and praying on it for weeks, trying to find in myself a will to surrender at the depth where something true would shake old foundations in my world-weary heart. Even this essay, finalizing itself irritatingly two days into Lent, has been slow finding its way out of my heart. The heart truly is uneven and rocky in all its terrain, unknowable just as the prophet Jeremiah said.
As I said in the beginning, the liturgical calendar with all its attendant practices are relatively new to my Christian experience and are littered with poor examples. I can understand why the Evangelicals jettisoned these rote practices as mere religion. And I can see why the traditionalists have held on to them so tightly to hold the Gospel itself in their very bodies, in their moments of their very days.
It was not until I prayerfully placed myself in the wobbly kneed, stuttery skin of Moses in Pharoah’s court, fresh off his Lent, ushering in the salvation of Israel, before thousands of years later Israel’s King ushers in the salvation of the world, that any clarity came to me. Praying the Scriptures has that incredible power.
I prayed to look through His eyes at the bedazzled wizards of the King’s court, the remarkable shine, the pantheon on powers on display. And Moses, he with His bush God, His desert God, His No-One’s-Ever-Seen-But-the-Only-One-that’s-Real God.
In my wacky imagination, as Moses stands shoulders back in face of all the beauties of the powers of this world, that soaring song from last holiday’s The Greatest Showman rings plays on the surround sound:
“All the shine of a thousand spotlights
All the stars we steal from the night sky
Will never be enough
Never be enough
Towers of gold are still too little
These hands could hold the world but it'll
Never be enough
Never be enough”
When I hear those words echo through Pharaoh’s halls, I can finally see it: Lent is an act of rebellion. A war-protest against the millennia old superpowers that are holding all of us in their sway. What Daniel called Babylon and Paul called the principalities and powers of this dark world. Lent isn’t a cleanse from irritating habits or even brief cessation of distraction… those all might be worthy means to an end.
But the means is not the end. For years in my professional life I taught this in my training classes. You can do all the right things and have it get you nowhere, because in the end your reasons, your Why, are what matters most.
What was Moses’ reason? What was Jesus’ reason? Both Moses and Jesus take the very powers of their adversaries—Moses the Egyptian gods and Jesus Death itself—and turn those weapons inside out. The will and the why to rebel, to Passover and to Easter, come to them in the self-deprivation of Lent. The empty themselves in the wilderness, to be filled with Spirit, to be filled with fire.
So if we must give up gluten, let us give it up to discover the spiritual starvation it may be masking. If we must go off Facebook, let us do it because every glance is a Siren’s call to avarice, envy, jealousy and self-aggrandizement. Let us unplug to push all the demons of our own self-reliance to the surface. Let’s prepare ourselves for the showdown between our wounded hearts, our weak knees, and the towering gods which have held us in their sway.
I believe that the temptations thrown at Jesus in His Lent were not the first time the enemy had attempted to distract Jesus from the path of liberation. The Lenten desert doesn’t bring new temptations, it exposes old ones. Fasting from our habitual behaviors defrocks our idols for what they are. It makes the Accuser unable to hide behind the shroud of reasonableness.
By letting our hungers quake unmet—be they food cravings, tech cravings, sin cravings—the craven demands underneath those hungers finally makes it out of the darkness into the light. We finally see that the Pharaoh is not just a leader building a nation, but a murderous demon set on destroying life itself. Our fasts unmask the apple-toting old lady as the wicked queen, the Grand Vizier Jafar as a venomous snake, the tortured genius Dr. Jekyll as the monstrous Mr. Hyde.
All the other days of the year we are suffocated by subliminal tortures. Unmet wants, frustrated aches, irritating obsessions, overweighted guilts. Lent, when done right, exposes them for the carnivorous enemy they are: the tantalizing “freedom” of a life without God.
When Jesus frees the world, on that day celebrated just 40 short days from now, He frees it not primarily from a distant hell, but from the hell we’ve been making.
The hell of our erratic wants.
The hell of our pains, repressed and festered.
The hell of our endlessly unsatisfying obsessions.
The hell of our self-mutilating guilts and shames.
The rebellion of Lent places this pantheon of worthless gods on display. Let their statues tower over us in Pharaoh’s court. Let their empty promises echo in the harrowing dark. Let the silence of Lent absorb all of their deception and shame. Let the eternal flame of the bush God, the desert God, make in us a steely will to stand tall in the great rebellion.
All of this carries to a cross. A place where the ultimate enemy, Death, is shown for the atrophied wimp that he is. All this wanting and hiding and obsessing we’ve been doing to keep Death at bay… the largess of Lent reminds us that we are made by God to face Death with Jesus and at the end of Passover’s darkest night, when we are at our most powerless, to rise.
To divide the wicked seas.
To see our idols fall.
To walk on dry land to freedom.
My prayer for you and for myself is that whatever privations we choose this Lent, may they be infused by a great and wonderful Why: Because a rebellion is rising within you, a wildfire of resistance to the world as it was, a fire that calls out to be honed into irrepressible light.