by Michele Naar-Obed, Oblate
Deuteronomy 26: 4-16
Romans 10: 8-13
Luke 4: 1-13
Ah, when shall come love’s courage to be strong! / Tell me, oh Lord – tell me, oh Lord, how long / are we to keep Christ writhing on the cross! ~from the poem Calvary, by Edward Arlington Robinson
Now, in a mere breath of time, straight ahead and through the double doors leading into the Chapel, my sights are fixed on the cross where a battered and tortured body will hang. Before death he will face betrayal. He will hear an entire community screaming for his crucifixion. He will be mocked and tortured, and for a brief moment, he will feel the pain of abandonment as he cries out, “Father, why have you forsaken me?” Like looking down the barrel of a gun, my eyes are fixed on the shrouded cross that forces me to ask, “How, in God’s name, do I stop the ongoing crucifixion in our time?”
So, we look to Luke, Chapter four, where Jesus is tempted by the devil.
After having been baptized by John, Jesus is filled with the Holy Spirit. He goes out alone into the desert and completely empties his physical body by fasting for forty days. He’s hungry and alone, without comfort or protection or advice from his human friends and earthly parents. The devil sees this and begins to work on him.
First with food, then with power and authority, and finally with health and wellbeing. With each temptation, Jesus says no. He is in complete fidelity with God for everything.
So here we have three things that, over time, human beings have become willing to kill for, even while professing faith and loyalty to God. No more do we share our first crops as an offering to God and to the widow and the stranger in the land, as God commanded in Deuteronomy, chapter 26. Instead, capitalism and profit-making have taken over. That covenant with God has been broken – but a new covenant was created at the Last Supper when Jesus says, “In this cup is the blood of the new covenant which shall be poured out for you for the forgiveness of sins.”
The Jews are disappointed in Jesus because he wasn’t a Messiah who would fight for their right to have food and power and safety. They wanted a king, an elitist, a military general. And what did they get? A poor boy, born in a manger, brought up doing manual labor. A refugee who hangs out with all the wrong people and commits acts of civil disobedience, and who refuses to take the power that is offered to him by the devil to help save the chosen people.
Today, we humans look to our churches to bless our governments and our militaries as they fight and kill for us to ensure our inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. At what point did we sell our souls to the devil to get these things?
Today we begin Lent. A time of fasting and praying, of giving up things, of emptying out. And in that emptying process, when we are hungry and vulnerable, Jesus knows we will be tempted by the devil. He prays in the garden for his disciples, present and future. He prays that we may know that we are in the world but not of the world. He knows we will be tempted by our lust for power and our need for security. He can see it all coming so he gives us the Holy Spirit, our counselor, our advocate, our spiritual director. And he gives us a prayer, the Lord’s Prayer. We say it every morning. And we pray in earnest and with intention.
That’s one form of prayer. There is also the language of prayer out in nature. It is in the wind, the gurgling water, the songbirds, the hum of bumblebees. They are all praying, and we can pray with them in community, believing that they are part of our community and we of theirs.
And fasting: what is this all about? What’s up with this ‘no meat’ thing on Fridays? When I was growing up, Friday suppers were fried smelt and macaroni and cheese. I never understood why. I never understood why we gave up candy during Lent, and on Easter Sunday would get these gigantic chocolate bunnies along other delights which, I have found, were often purchased from corporations that exploit and oppress child laborers.
In our last Oblate meeting, someone raised the question about what is the spirit behind this fasting? St. Benedict says Lent should be an ongoing commitment, but he realizes that might be a lot to ask. In Isaiah, chapter 58, we hear that the people fast and ask God, “Why when we fasted did you not see? When we starved our bodies, did you pay no heed?” And God answered, “Is such the fast I desire, a day for men to starve their bodies? Because on your fast day you see to your business and oppress all your laborers. No; this is the fast I desire, that you unlock the fetters of wickedness and untie the cords of the yoke to let the oppressed go free: to break every yoke.”
What I’ve come to understand is this: Lent is about preparing to meet the devil’s temptations head-on – as Jesus did – instead of succumbing to temptations that oppress God’s people and God’s creation. This oppression is the ongoing crucifixion of Jesus, who told us that whatever we do to the least of these we do to him. Lent is about recognizing the need to change our lives during these days of Lent and all the days that follow. God has given us everything that we need to live happy and healthy lives. And Jesus taught us that our security lies in love.
The temptations of the devil are deep and insidious and the devil himself is well cloaked in the garments of authority, the garments of power. Lent is a time to pray that we “put no trust in the great ones on earth, human beings with no power to save, who breathe their last and return to dust and whose plans come to nothing” (Psalm 146:3-4). During this season of Lent and every day following, let us help each other stand strong against the temptations of the devil. Let us renounce the temptations that lead to oppression, and so stop crucifying Jesus. Let us help each other learn how to live in this world but not be of the world.