Sunday, February 21, 2021

Time of Fulfillment

Some Thoughts on this 1st Sunday of Lent, February 21, 2021.

Back when Lent really was exactly 40 days (before Ash Wednesday and the three following days got added on), Lent began on this Sunday (as it still does, incidentally, in Milan, Italy, where to this day there is still no Ash Wednesday), and the 40 days are in fact still counted beginning with today. Of course, for. many it feels like Lent has been ongoing for almost a year, a contemporary commonplace that says something about how we have experienced this terrible time of pandemic, even while mischaracterizing Lent.

That said, this year as every year on this day, we are invited to begin our Lent the way Jesus began his public life and mission – not in flamboyant miracles, exciting accomplishments, and public acclaim, but in the threatening silence and solitude of the desert. The desert is the epitome of how most of us imagine a harsh and somewhat forbidding place – hot and sunny by day, cold and dark by night, silent as death. That was where Jesus made his Lent and where he invites us (symbolically at least) to join him for ours. Every Lent, the same Spirit that drove Jesus out into the desert leads us to spend these 40 days with him among the wild beasts that threaten and challenge us to choose what to make of our lives.

According to the biblical account of human origins, Adam had originally lived peacefully among those same wild beasts – his food provided, according to Jewish legend, by angels. Jesus’ sojourn among the wild beasts with angels ministering to him, tells us that God’s original plan is still in place – in spite of whatever obstacles we put in his way. That’s the point of the story of Noah. Despite all the obstacles people put in God’s way, in his mercy God patiently waited during the building of the ark, in which a few persons, eight in all, were saved. God then went even further and made a covenant of mercy and forgiveness with Noah and his descendants, restraining his just anger, to guarantee the continuance of life on earth. That is the symbolism fo the rainbow - an archer's bow in the clouds, its archer, God, mercifully restraining his righteous wrath as a sign of the covenant between God and the earth

In Jesus, however, God does more than just restrain his anger. He actually undoes the damage done by human sinfulness, descending into the prison of death to free its victims. Jesus’ descent among the dead, among the spirits in prison, anticipates the final fulfillment of his life-giving mission, addressed to us in an especially intense way in this Lenten season: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.”

That’s what Lent is all about, because that’s what life is ultimately all about. Our perennial temptation is to imagine Lent in individualistic terms - as I once overheard someone explaining Lent (in a somewhat New Age way) as “a time to get connected with ourselves.” Lent is indeed a time to renew ourselves, a task each one of us is responsible to undertake. But we do that by focusing not on ourselves, but on the bigger picture, and where we want to be in that picture. Lent is our special time to connect with Christ – Christ tempted in the desert and victorious on the cross, Christ descended among the dead and risen at the right hand of his Father – and to allow that experience, his experience, to make a real difference in our lives, because, in spite of all appearances to the contrary, the kingdom of God really is at hand.


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