Sermon: I Lent

Patrick Allen on February 28, 2012

I Lent (b)
Mk 1.9-13
26 February 2012
Fr. Patrick Allen

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Back in 1994, the philosopher and moral theologian Gilbert Meilaender was a signatory to a statement defending the traditional Christian understanding of a particular, and particularly controverted, question of morality.  Doesn't really matter what, but the consequences do.  An unhelpfully brief excerpt of the statement appeared in the Wall Street Journal and then, so it would seem to Professor Meilaender, all hell broke loose:  students at the small but prestigious college at which he taught called for his resignation and a boycott of his classes in the meantime; the student senate voted to reprimand him and the student paper editorialized against him; posters featuring his likeness and deriding his intellect and character were posted around the campus and town; a significant number of the faculty signed a letter criticizing the initial statement and demeaning Meilaender's views in what, at least for an academic and intellectual were cruel terms.  He became, for a time, the object of rage and scorn from virtually his entire community, with friends and colleagues willing to speak up on his behalf few and far in between.

Professor Meilaender later wrote an essay recalling that time, an essay I think to be wise and to which I have returned from time to time, an essay which he called "On Bringing One's Life to a Point."[i]  "Bringing one's life to a point" – by that, he meant that through such an experience it is possible to regain, or maybe to gain for the first time, a sense of what counts in one's life – not what counts theoretically, as in our own idealized, day-dreamy versions of ourselves, but what actually, really counts, what truly matters; what is left when adversity – in his case, unrelenting public attack – burns away the dross of our vain self-conception, and "who I am"  and "what really matters to me" is laid bare.  As Meilaender wrote, and would go on to explain, "I recovered myself within my deepest commitments."

"Bringing one's life to a point."  A personal attack that allows, that compels, the recovery of oneself within one's deepest commitments. 

While we might wish to get there without the pain, I think we can all imagine being in retrospect grateful for such an experience, or at least grateful for the recovery of our true self the experience allowed.  And of course we do, or we will, have those moments, and in big and small ways:  perhaps the near miss on the interstate; almost certainly in the terminal diagnosis in the exam room.

This morning, in the Gospel for this first Sunday in Lent, our Lord comes to such a defining moment, stripped and laid bare by hunger, exposure, and the company of the Father of Lies.  The Holy Spirit, the same Spirit that descends upon Jesus gently as a dove at his baptism, that Spirit then

Immediately drove [Jesus] out into the wilderness.  And he was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts.

Unlike St. Matthew and St. Luke, who also record this event, St. Mark is not at all interested in the details of the temptation, not in the back-and-forth Scripture quoting between Jesus and Satan, but merely in the time in the wilderness, the fact of the temptation, the attack, as the necessary precursor to Jesus' public ministry, to his fulfillment of Israel's messianic hope.

If we grew up in and around the Church, if we grew up in Sunday School, the forty days in the wilderness will be filled with Biblical resonance:  the forty days and nights of rain when the Lord God judged the earth by flood (we've been reminded of that in this morning's first two lessons; and, then the forty years in which the children of Israel wandered in the wilderness before being permitted to enter the Promised Land.   If we had an especially thorough Sunday School teacher, we might also recall the prophet Ezekiel, who laid on his right side for forty days as a warning of Jerusalem's coming siege and destruction. [ii] 

And if we had an overbearingly pedantic Sunday School teacher (or maybe an overbearingly pedantic Sunday morning preacher), we might recall two more examples of the forty days' phenomenon – we met them just last week in the account of the Transfiguration:  Moses and Elijah, who conversed with Jesus on the holy mountain, representing together God's revelation of himself in the law and the prophets.  Both were permitted to approach God in his immediate presence, and both were commissioned to serve as agents of his self-revelation – Moses on Sinai and Elijah on Horeb – but both fasted and were tested for forty days before they could enter that Presence and bear that revelation.[iii]

Like Moses and Elijah, who always point us forward to him, Jesus, by his forty-days' struggle in the wilderness, by his victory over Satan's temptations, by his fasting, by his endurance of the wild beasts' menace, is choosing – not just falling into, but personally, actively, positively, responsibly choosing and accepting for himself the vocation of Messiah, of Redeemer, of being in himself, in his own person, the revelation of God's love.  Out there in the wilderness, his life is brought to a point.

He endures, he chooses, and immediately, Mark tells us in the very next verse, "He came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and proclaiming, ‘The Kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the Gospel.'"[iv]  And so, you and I have a Savior to cling to, a Lord to follow, a Gospel to believe in.

So we see that the experience of having one's life brought to a point, as Professor Meilaender called it, is not simply the occasion of self-revelation, but always the occasion of choice, of choosing to live faithfully, which – for us – means precisely clinging to Christ as Savior and following him as Lord, and turning away from all the shams and counterfeits, from the seductive but false gods of convenience, of ease, of personal autonomy, of security, of conformity and popularity – and that list goes on and on, and I believe that Deacon Bocabella will have a thing or two to say about that at our parish retreat next week.

Again, there will come a day or days, and in ways not of our own choosing, when life will be brought to a point, and we will choose – either to fight our own way through or, in faith, to collapse into Jesus' arms.  But collapsing into Jesus' arms – "we experience that as hope, not as possession."[v]  We walk as yet by faith, not by sight.  In the meantime, in this time, it means whatever fidelity – faithfulness – requires, and whatever fate – whatever cross – it entails. 

On this point, C.S. Lewis found an obscure passage in Shakespeare inspiring:

In King Lear (III:vii) [writes Lewis] there is a man who is such a minor character that Shakespeare has not given him even a name: he is merely "First Servant." All the characters around him-Regan, Cornwall, and Edmund-have fine long-term plans. They think they know how the story is going to end, and they are quite wrong. The servant has no such delusions. He has no notion how the play is going to go. But he understands the present scene. He sees an abomination (the blinding of old Gloucester) taking place. He will not stand it. His sword is out and pointed at his master's breast in a moment: then Regan stabs him dead from behind. That is his whole part: eight lines all told. But if it were real life and not a play, that is the part it would be best to have acted.[vi]

The nameless "First Servant" chooses faithfulness, and so chooses a cross.  Yet, as Lewis says, "that is the part it would have been best to have acted."  And not because of some sentimental Southern-style "glory of the lost cause" – just the opposite.  Because faithfulness, choosing the cross, unites us to the One who loved us all the way to the end, chose the Cross for us, and rose victorious over the grave.  Because Jesus, in fact, has already won this war.

Well, here we are on the first Sunday in Lent, the Church's own forty days' fast.  And perhaps we can descend for a moment, maybe not from the sublime to the ridiculous, but perhaps from the dramatic to the ordinary.  Again, each of us may expect, at some point, and by some means likely not of our own choosing – be it sickness, the death of a loved one, an unplanned and unwanted pregnancy, financial ruin ... who knows? – each of us may expect to have our life brought to a point, to have a cross which we might, in faith, in Christ, accept. 

But our Lenten disciplines, our fasting and self-denial, even in the piddling little abstinences we choose for ourselves, give us the opportunity to practice faithfulness – to choose, as it were, a little practice cross, maybe a cross with training wheels – if only as a reminder that the real thing is out there.  Not our life, but maybe our mid-afternoon, is brought to a point.

You know what I mean?  Sure you do.  When it's just you, your conscience, and that chocolate bar... well, even that is an opportunity to get ready for the real thing.  Lent, if we will give ourselves to it, will do that – and it will do it even when we fail, maybe especially when we fail – by pointing us to Christ, and to his perfect faithfulness to, and for, us. 

In the moment of trial, when life is brought to a point, to choose faithfulness – that is Jesus for us: in the wilderness, forty days' hungry and menaced by wild beasts.  And not simply as an example, but truly there for us, on our behalf:  choosing us, choosing to be our Savior, overcoming the Adversary, fighting his way to the Cross, and loving us.

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[i] First Things, Nov 1994.

[ii] Gn 7.12,17; Ex 16.35

[iii] Ex 34.28; 1 Kgs 19.8

[iv] Mk 1.14

[v] Meilaender's phrase.

[vi] C.S. Lewis, "The World's Last Night." Cited by Meilaender