I've grown a little cynical about Lenten devotion. Too often, Lenten disciplines remind me of New Year's Eve resolutionswe all make these pledges, we vaguely gesture toward keeping them, but we know we're never really going to take off those five pounds/join a gym/work weekly at a soup kitchen.
It was with that faint cynicism that I turned to the lectionary for Lent, and as I read through John and Mark and Paul, I realized that I (like Mark's disciples) had missed the point, mistaken what was supposed to be a devotional aid as the end in itself. And thatan end in itselfis the very thing Lent is not. Rather, Lent is a trail, an "in between," a going toward. "Above all," wrote Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann, "Lent is a spiritual journey and its destination is Easter."
So don't pick up the lectionary if you want to devote this Lent to breaking your caffeine addiction. For what the readings come back toover and overis the cross.
I wear a cross around my neck every day, but somehow I had forgotten.
Lauren F. Winner is the author of Girl Meets God: On the Path to a Spiritual Life. She lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Mum's the Word
2 Kings 2:1-12; Psalm 50:1-6; 2 Corinthians 4:3-6; Mark 9:2-9
Characters and dialogue ricochet between the two central readings for Transfiguration Sunday. In 2 Kings we find a wise, devoted Elisha preparing for the death of Elijah. In Jericho a company of prophets asks Elisha if he is aware that the Lord is going to "take Elijah up to heaven" that day. "I do know," says Elisha; "say nothing."
We will hear those instructions"say nothing"again in our gospel. The story is a familiar one. The disciples, as is so often true (and comforting) in the gospel of Mark, are bumbling and clueless. They see the transfiguration, and their response is preservation. They want a fixative. They offer to build tents for the transfigured Lord and the appearing prophets.
On the way down the mountain Jesus says something that strikes his followers as awfully strange, even impenetrable. He insists that they tell no one of their mountaintop experience until after Jesus rises from the dead. The questions for us, as for Peter and Co., are two: What could this "rising from the dead" mean, and why were the disciples forbidden to speak of the transfiguration until after that rising?
It is the task of Lent to prepare us for the answer to the first question. What does this rising from the dead mean? As Paul will tell us throughout this season, it means absolutely everything.
But there is still that pesky second question: Why should Jesus care whether or not folks talk about his "dazzling white" transfiguration and his confab with Moses and Elijah? Indeed, one might think spreading the story of the transfiguration could help convert a few unbelievers.
The key to Jesus' instruction is the timing. He doesn't forbid his followers to talk about the transfiguration ever; he enjoins them to tell its story only after he has risen from the grave. What Jesus (and Mark) realize is that on its own, the story of the transfiguration could be misleading, for it might suggest Jesus' uniqueness came primarily from his earthly ministry. In reality, Jesus' kingship comes primarily from the cross. To tell of the transfiguration without telling of the resurrection would be to live only in Epiphany and never wind one's way into Easter. The story of the transfiguration is a perfect bridge between the two.
A Lenten Baptism
Genesis 9:8-17; Psalm 25:1-10; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15
In today's gospel reading, Jesus enters the wilderness to duke it out with the devil. During Lent, we follow him there to wrestle with demons as Jesus wrestled with Satan, our 40 days of Lent mimicking Jesus' 40 days in the desert. In this way, Lent is perhaps the easiest season of the liturgical year, because this Lenten struggle is the place where we live year roundwrestling with Satan and trying to model our own strivings on the strivings of the Lord.
But the readings suggest this church season is about more than tussling with the devil in the middle of nowhere. Rather than giving us heaps of desert readingsthe Israelites wandering in the wilderness, for examplethe lectionary gives us baptism. Our gospel reading, which culminates in Jesus' days in the desert, opens with Jesus' baptism by John. And if our Hebrew scripture readingthe triumphant story of the rainbow as a sign of God's eternal promise to Noahdoes not at first blush appear to be about baptism, Peter's epistle connects the flood waters with the baptismal waters.
Peter's riff on the Noah story is a curious passage, one that has puzzled scholars for centuries. Does Peter mean to suggest that the very waters that destroyed a wicked earth should be praised for cradling the ark to safety? Regardless of the particulars, the awesome waters in Genesis presage baptismal waters. And those eight people in the ark? They foreshadow the Christian community, washed in the cleansing waters of baptism and so spared the fate of destruction. Peter moves swiftly from Noah's ark to baptism, reminding readers that in baptism not only does God act, God's people also act.
Why do we read about baptism at Lent? Because Lent is teleological; it points toward Easter, that holy day on which the church has traditionally emphasized the rite of baptism, the sacramental inauguration of new life in Christ. We can have some measure of peace in our desert wrestlings because we know the outcome of the story. Jesus beats the devil not in the desert only but in rising from the dead.
Seeing Past Satan
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Psalm 22:23-31; Romans 4:13-25; Mark 8:31-38
Beginning with this second Sunday of Lent, scripture asks us to ruminate on salvation, specifically the means of salvation. And here, as elsewhere, Jesus and Paul both come straight to the point: We are saved by Jesus on the cross.
The story of that salvation begins with God's calling Abram. God makes a covenant with Abram, changing his name, commanding Abraham in the covenantal act of circumcision, and promising to make him the "father of many nations."
As Peter reinterpreted the flood in Genesis, here again our epistle recasts the Old Testament passage. It was not Abraham's adherence to law, suggests Paul, but rather his faith and the faith of his descendents that cemented Abraham's relationship to God. And as faith "counted [Abraham] to righteousness," so too faith counts to our righteousness. But faith in what? Faith in the God who sought out Abraham, who seeks us out, and who raised Jesus from the dead.
As last week's readings pointed our attention to Easter, these readings direct us to Good Friday. En route to Caesarea Philippi, well before the Last Supper or Golgotha, Jesus begins teaching his disciples about the cross. "He spoke about it plainly," writes Mark, telling his friends that he would be rejected and would suffer.
Upon hearing Jesus' prophecies, Peter rebukes his teacher. Why? Mark suggests Peter is radically uncomfortable with Jesus' speaking of these ultimate thingsof God and of death. He doesn't understand what place death could have in the kingdom promised by Jesus. He doesn't yet see Jesus for who he is. And for that, Jesus identifies Peter with Satan, the one he battled in the wilderness and the one we battle during Lent.
Satan was something of a sticking point for me when I first became a Christian. What was I to do with this Satan language, with demons, with phrases like "spiritual warfare"? Were they mere metaphor? Was Satan a pitchforked, horned red guy with a tail? Was I too sophisticated to bother with this woo-woo evil stuff?
I still don't know exactly who or what Satan is. But Jesus' strong words to Peter make one thing clear enough: Pitchfork or not, Satan is that which prevents us from seeing Jesus for who he is.
God's True Law
Exodus 20:1-17; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; John 2:13-22
Christians traditionally adopt rules during Lent: We fast, we abstain from chocolate, we shun coffee, beer, or single malt. We get a glimpse of the choreography of Hebrew scripture, of life organized around the dictates of God's law613 laws in the Old Testament, to be exact.
Psalm 19 is, in part, a hymn to God's perfect law: "The precepts of the Lord are right and give joy to the heart. The commandment of the Lord is pure and gives light to the eyes." And Exodus gives us scripture's first iteration of the Ten Commandments. These commands are so ubiquitous that they might seem lifeless at first blush. But they are real and, sometimes, very difficult. Most of us don't find it too hard to refrain from homicide, but find the persons who consistently honor their parents and never covet that which isn't rightly theirs.
The New Testament readings are not concerned explicitly with law, but rather with signs. Certain Jews expect signs and portents. They will acknowledge Jesus as messiah if just the right omens suggest that he is. Paul has scathing words for those who cling to this cipher-logic: To those who miss the point, the gospel is an "offense."
What is it that these foolhardy Jews and misguided wisdom-seeking Gentiles can't apprehend? "Christ nailed to the cross." The cross, for Paul, is the trueand onlysign we need that Jesus is the Christ.
Is there any rhyme or reason to the lectionary's juxtaposing two venerable readings on law with these two insistences on the sovereignty, not of traditional Jewish mores, but of the cross? Perhaps the point is that Christians, though justified by faith, are still to inhabit God's law. Our understanding of law, certainly, is different in light of the cross. For Christians, inhabiting law means not merely observing the moral precepts of the Old Testament, but living into the reality that the ultimate expression of God's law is the cross and resurrection.
That Old-Time Message
Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21
Here are twin stories of salvation. First, the book of Numbers retells God's ransoming Israel from bondage in Egypt. The people are restless, cranky, and frankly ungrateful. They demand to know why God and Moses brought them out of lush Egypt to die in the barren desert.
And then, in a verse that even the smallest Sunday schoolers know, the story of an even greater salvation: "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that everyone who has faith in him may not perish but have eternal life." My friend Molly claims she knew this verse before she knew her alphabet.
There's a reason John 3:16 has so often been lifted up out of scripture, memorized, quoted, and emblazoned on bumper stickers. The old-time gospel message is that God loves us. His son died for us. Those who have faith in him will live forever.
Faced with this great good news, what is our response? Like the children of Israel in the desert, I often forget the truth of what God has done for me. I complain to God, or whoever else will listen, about the annoyances, the difficulties, the strains.
To be sure, living into our salvation can be hideously hard. God asks everything. And it's okay to complain from time to timeGod is big enough to take our complaints. But the psalmist suggests a better, truer response: "It is good to give thanks to the Lord, for his love endures forever. So let them say so who were redeemed by the Lord."
Mending Our Twisted Hearts
Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 51:1-12; Hebrews 5:5-10; John 12:20-33
A few weeks ago, the lesson appointed for the Sunday school class I teach was the fall of Adam and Eve. My curriculum suggested I lead my 4-year-old charges in a craft that required four pipe cleaners per student. Twisting together two of the wires, the students made a heart, and then a second one with the remaining wire. They were then to squeeze the second heart until it was misshapen and twisted. Heart number one represented our hearts before the fall, and number two our hearts afterward. I think I learned more that Sunday morning than my students.
"Heart" appears more than 1,000 times in the Bible, and that most vital organ and metaphor is, well, at the heart of this week's readings. Jeremiah castigates and prophesies. The people of God have been, as usual, unfaithful, but God has not forsaken them. God will not only keep promises to them, God will one day establish a new covenant with God's beloved. That new covenant won't be written on tablets of stone, and it won't reiterate the Decalogue we read two weeks ago. It will be written on people's hearts.
The psalmist picks up the theme. We wish God to teach our hearts "wisdom" so that we can choose the faithfulness God desires (Psalm 51:6). God can make our hearts, so squished and distorted, perfect and new. My new heart, novelist and Episcopal laywoman Gail Godwin explains in Heart: A Natural History of the Heart-Filled Life, "will be able to walk accordingly with God and feel shame when it deviates."
Jeremiah's heart covenant comes in the person of Jesus. The hope is not that we will follow or imitate him, but that we'll open our hearts to him. Indeed, the New Testament speaks of knowing Jesus not with our brains but our hearts. In Acts, Lydia's heart opens to Jesus; in his epistle, Paul prays that Christ would dwell in the Ephesians' hearts by faith.
Our gospel reading tells of two whose hearts seem open to Godtwo Greeks who tell the apostle Philip their wish: "Sir, we would see Jesus." Jesus' response, the mini-parable about seeds and fruit, at first seems to be a non sequitur, but commentators have suggested Jesus was speaking specifically about Greeks and other Gentiles. With occasional exceptions, such as the Syro-Phonecian woman, Gentiles would not, indeed, be able to "see" Jesus until his work on the cross bridges the gulch between Gentiles and God.
John leaves us hangingwe can't be certain whether or not the Greeks were granted their wish. But we can be sure of this: The organ for seeing Jesus is not our eyes, but our hearts.
The Nameless Annointer
Isaiah 50:4-9; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Mark 14:1-15:47
In the middle of Philippians, Paul gives us a hymn that encapsulates Jesus' entire life. Jesus, Paul tells his readers, was always equal to the Father. Still, he emptied himself and became a slave, the suffering servant of Isaiah. He not only humbled himself in becoming incarnate, but also "was obedient, even to the point of death, death on a cross!" In that death and resurrection, he is exalted, and he shall be victorious. After that sweeping overview, the gospel reading hones in on the harrowing story of the Passion.
Perhaps the saddest piece of the Passion is the endless betrayal. These were Jesus' friends. They had eaten meals with him, learned with him; they had probably gone swimming and hiking together. They had prayed together. They had seen his miracles and his healings. And they all denied him.
In this long dramatic gospel passage, it's easy to overlook the feast at Bethany and skip straight to Passover, with its pulsing movement toward Calvary. But, in a story filled with the treachery of Jesus' followers, the anonymous perfuming woman knows who Christ is. Her perfume, Jesus tells us, presages his death: "She has anointed my body in anticipation of my burial." That perfume names Jesus the messiah as "Anointed One" and crowns him king.
Feminist scholars have pointed out how many women in scripture go without names. The argument is that the authors of biblical texts did not name the women because the women were not deemed important, and perhaps that is true. But I'm sometimes relieved that so many characters in the Bible are nameless, for it helps me read myself into their place. I spend most of my time behaving like Simon the Leper's priggish and horrified guests: I am threatened by those who have the temerity to name God the King of Kings, Lord Messiah; I am critical of those who treat that King of Kings with the extravagance he deserves. On Passion Sunday I will try to take my cues instead from the nameless woman.
Trembling With Amazement'
Isaiah 25:6-9; Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Mark 16:1-8
We think of Isaiah as an Advent and Christmas prophet. It is Isaiah we read during our annual "lessons and carols" services. It is Isaiah who foretells a virgin birth. But Isaiah is also a prophet of Easter. He tells the whole Easter story in just two short verses: "He will destroy death forever.... On that day the people will say: See, this is our Lord; we have waited for him and he will deliver us.'"
Easter is the point toward which our Lenten meditations have been leading. God's calling of Abram, his freeing of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery, his 40 days with the devil in the wilderness, his dying to atone for our sinsall that is prelude to the final triumph of Easter, Jesus' triumph over death. In his life, we have life, and in his resurrection, we are resurrected.
The shocking claim of resurrection has, of course, been domesticated. Easter is too often allegorized into meaninglessness, with seasonal greeting cards, and even sermons that emphasize renewal or hope or rejuvenation. But, as Fleming Rutledge once asked, would the disciples really have "trembled with amazement" because the flowers bloomed again?
Paul recapitulates the story, reminding the Corinthians of their inheritance in Christ. But Paul's narration does not stop with Easter morning. Paul tells of Jesus' appearance to more than "500 of our brothers at once," to James and the apostlesand then finally to Paul himself. This is Paul's epiphany on the road to Damascus, the stunning epiphany that transformed Jesus' zealous enemy Saul into his follower and evangelist.
Paul, it's worth remembering, didn't hang out in fishing boats with the incarnate Jesus. He didn't watch Jesus heal the hemorrhaging woman or break bread with him at Passover. The Jesus who transformed Paul, the Jesus to whom Paul responded, the Jesus for whom he was imprisoned and whose gospel he preached, was the resurrected Jesus. It was the resurrected Lord whom Paul served, and it is the resurrected Lord whom we, too, are called to serve.
Acts 4:32-35; Psalm 133; 1 John 1:1-2:2; John 20:19-31
These readings point us in two directions, one of which, in our broken world, seems hideously obvious, and one of which seems laughably implausible. To begin, these readings don't mince words about sin. The risen Lord's message to his disciples speaks of forgiveness and sin, and our epistle reading reminds us of our own sinful state. We have been turning sin over in our minds the entire Lenten season, and stilleven in the glory and celebration of Easterwe are brought face to face with it. Even with the triumph of resurrection, we can't claim to be without sin.
Then there is our second theme, captured in the first line of Psalm 133: "How good and pleasant it is when brothers and sisters live together in unity." Brotherly and sisterly unity? Now, as national and international conversations are increasingly given over to talk of war and empire? What does it mean to proclaim the goodness of fraternal fellowship in such a world?
Scripture makes some difficult and startling claims about what living together in unity actually looks like. First, as Acts makes clear, "unity" is a state of mindthe believers were of one heart and mindbut not only that. Unity is not something we can "spiritualize" away. For the early believers, unity and fellowship made real, material demands. The community looked after its own so that there "were no needy persons among them." Wealthy members of the community sold their property and freely gave the proceeds.
But just as we are beginning to get comfortable with the physical, material demands of Christian unity, we find in 1 John that there is still a more basic requirement. You think sharing your money with people is hard, our readings seem to askthat's just the beginning. To have fellowship is, by definition, to have fellowship through Jesus Christ. It is by walking in the light of Jesus that we have fellowship not only with God but, through him, with one another.