I am like a flag in the center of
I sense ahead the wind which is
coming, and must live
while the things of the world
still do not move:
the doors still close softly, and
the chimneys are full
the windows do not rattle yet,
and the dust still lies down.
I already know the storm, and I
am troubled as the sea.
I leap out, and fall back,
and throw myself out, and am
in the great storm.
—Rainer Maria Rilke,
translated by Robert Bly
Lent is the exception to the rest of the liturgical year, in which the emphasis is on the challenges of building and sustaining a radically inclusive community of the faithful. For the next 40 days, we will not be accompanied; we will walk alone into the wilderness to stand “like a flag in the center of open space.” There, like Jesus, we will confront our demons; we will name and expel the false sources of life that we have worshipped over and over again until we are stripped bare. And at the end of these five weeks we will be called to “leap out, and fall back,” to trust in “the wind which is coming,” the great storm that will usher us from death into life.
Michaela Bruzzese, a Sojourners contributing writer, lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Ashes to Ashes
Genesis 9:8-17; Psalm 25:1-10; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15
Last Wednesday we began the Lenten journey marked with ashes and reminded that “we are dust, and to dust we shall return.” The public declaration of our repentance and the acknowledgement of our physical mortality are important first steps on the journey to meet God as we entered the world—naked, vulnerable, dependent. As our journey continues, water shows us both how to let go and how to begin again. Genesis describes the flood that washed humanity from the earth, after which God promises that “never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood” (Genesis 9:11). From this point, water will be used for life instead of death. Mark testifies that God’s promise is kept through Jesus, whose baptism symbolizes his desire to walk with us to this “kingdom of God” and the new life that awaits us.
Mark’s description provides even more guidance for these 40 days, for Jesus is able to proclaim the new reign only after he has entered the wilderness and, accompanied by both wild beasts and angels, stared down the false gods that tempted him. Now we are invited to continue the journey as Jesus did—we must enter the wild places where only we can name and reject the idols we have collected through the year. Trusting God and God’s faithfulness, we must wait, “absolutely alone in the great storm,” for the God who has come to meet us.
A Leap to Faith
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Psalm 22:23-31; Romans 4:13-25; Mark 8:31-38
God’s covenant with Abraham is actually God’s third attempt to reach humanity—the first ended when we disobeyed God and were expelled from paradise and the second when we sinned against one another so severely that God elected to wash away most of humanity and start again. But Abraham is different—in the language of Kierkegaard, Abraham makes a “leap to faith.” Seemingly without reason, Abraham trusts God and accepts God’s invitation. From this great faith, a covenant, and a people, is born.
Except for Mary and a few other notables, thousands of years of Christian history demonstrate that most of us are unable to make this leap as purely as Abraham. Indeed, for most of us, discipleship is a series of starts and stops, hesitancies and reconsiderations, baby steps and steps back. Wonderful, flawed Peter symbolizes the struggle to live discipleship on God’s terms and not ours. Today, Jesus assures Peter and us that the attempt to make God what we want, instead of meeting God on God’s terms, is nothing less than Satanic.
Peter beautifully embodies the seemingly impossible task of discerning the call of the Spirit from the call of our own needs, impulses, and desires. The Lenten season is a unique and precious opportunity to, like Abraham and Mary, “leap out” to faith. We can only discern the work of the Spirit from our own egos if we can let everything go—including our need to control the endings.
Exodus 20:1-17; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; John 2:13-22
Genesis makes clear that God’s decree is absolute when it comes to idolatry. The first commandment, to love God and God alone, is stated and then elaborated upon for three more verses. Such emphasis seems required, given how difficult it has been in the history of religion to keep the focus on the path to God without stopping to worship the trees along the way. Paul stated the problem clearly in his own community: “For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” Without faith, our religious symbols are “foolishness” on one extreme, but taken to another, they become idols.
These days, idols rarely come in the form of easily recognized statues. At times they are even disguised as part of religion itself, as Jesus found in today’s reading from John. The temple to Yahweh no longer showed the way to God because it was cluttered with complicated rituals and requirements; what was intended to help believers live faithfully had essentially become idolatrous. Jesus’ response was as passionate as his response to Peter’s idolatry last week: He destroyed “the marketplace,” driving out money-changers and animals with a passion that the disciples later describe as “zeal” (John 2:17). We too are invited to examine the rituals and practices in our own lives, secular and religious, to keep those that are life-giving and lead to God and remove those that are not.
Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21
The account in Numbers is more important for what is not included than what is. The bronze serpent that Moses creates indeed brings healing and therefore stronger faith to a weary people who have tired of the journey. What is recorded later, however, is that the bronze serpent eventually became an object of worship in itself, and had to be destroyed by King Hezekiah (2 Kings 18).
Like the bronze serpent, Jesus turned the cross, an instrument of torture and suffering, into a symbol of healing and new life. And yet, like the bronze serpent, the cross and even scripture have taken on idolatrous qualities in contemporary Christianity. John 3:16 has become a slogan in itself, and not always for good. At its best, it is the impetus for the formation of a radically inclusive community to which all are welcome—the lost, the forgotten, the abandoned—bringing healing and new life as God, “who so loved the world,” did through Jesus. At its worst, however, John 3:16 is used as a weapon to separate the “saved” from the “unsaved,” a vehicle of religious superiority and a means of intimidation for those who do not share (or want to share) the belief in Jesus as savior. The message, repeated over and over in these five weeks, is that the search for idolatry in our lives and hearts must be relentless, and must include everything, including the beliefs we profess and how we profess them.
Troubled as the Sea
Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 51:1-12; Hebrews 5:5-10; John 12:20-33
On this Passion Sunday, the Jesus portrayed in John is calmly aware of the events that await him. The one who walks toward death assures us that in dying we will be reborn, that “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (John 12:25). He is confident that God is with him: “It is for this reason that I have come to this hour.” His confidence is reflected in Jeremiah, where God assures us that we will know God’s ways firsthand, for “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jeremiah 31:33). It is a sentiment also reflected in the psalm: “You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart” (Psalm 51:6).
But there is no denying that confronting physical death is terrifying; Jesus also confesses that “my soul is troubled” (John 12:27). His feelings are echoed by Rilke; knowing the future does not ease the fear: “I already know the storm, and I am troubled as the sea.” Like Jesus, we must enter the great silence of the next two weeks anyway, alone with our God, “while the things of the world still do not move: the doors still close softly, and the chimneys are full of silence, the windows do not rattle yet, and the dust still lies down.”