Life & Soul

Lent is more than a spiritual boot camp

A parishioner receives an ash cross on her forehead from during an Ash Wednesday service in Texas (CNS)

I can’t remember exactly who it was, but it was a devout Catholic who said to me: “Oh, I do hate Lent, it’s so dreary.” There is, I think, a residual sense among Catholics that Lent is the price you pay for having Easter: the no pain, no gain approach that yokes pain and gain to the same chariot, rather like the unruly winged horses of Socrates’s chariot, to be better controlled by the natural will of the devout Christian, who flexes his spiritual muscles a bit in Lent and brushes up on how to take the tricky corners.

The obvious paradigm for the 40 days of Lent is Jesus’s temptations in the wilderness, but in these Jesus is actually identifying himself in a profound way with the history of the Chosen People and their experiences in the desert. This desert experience was fundamental to Israel’s self-understanding. Jesus, as it were, goes back to the source of Israel’s formative history and reaffirms the centrality of the events of the Exodus: the Law given to Moses, the miraculous food and water, the testing of God by the people.

The modern tendency is to over-spiritualise Jesus’s time in the desert by making it all mythological. Even if an exegete accepts that the episode truly happened (many exegetes are uncomfortable with the idea of Jesus encountering the Devil and prefer to think of it as just his own “shadow side”) they believe the temptations are all symbolic. I don’t think Jesus thinks that. He is basing his actions on history. He is identifying with Israel’s time in the wilderness because in her deliverance from Egypt and the subsequent events she found the key to understanding her entire identity, a guarantee for all her future. There she experienced the concrete truth that God desired to save her – what the Scripture scholar Gerhard Von Rad calls “the absolute surety for the Lord’s will to save, something like a warrant to which faith could appeal in times of trial”. God really had brought them out of slavery with great signs and wonders. It was not a symbolic, spiritual liberation. He had redeemed them and made them his own.

This was in spite of themselves, their fear and grumbling, their looking backwards, their lack of faith and their idolatry. In these actions God was getting himself glory by his mighty acts. It has the same gratuitous, divine initiative as the original act of creation, which is why God “rebukes” the Red Sea as he had done the waters of Chaos, which fled (Ps 114). Henceforth, this told Israel what she needed to know about God.

Tempting though it is, then, to see Lent in terms of a spiritual boot camp, its main emphasis on resisting temptation, I have to start with the conviction that Lent is not a celebration of what I am going to do for God. To be like Jesus, I need to remember and retrace the mighty acts already done in the history of salvation, and seek to allow that history to enliven my faith in the “warrant” of God’s will and power to redeem me, to make me his own. By doing so, Jesus finds the faith and strength for his forthcoming Passion and Cross. These then, in their turn, become the culmination of what God has already promised and signified in the events of the Old Testament. Jesus is the new Moses who will lead his people from slavery to freedom, from death and sin to the Promised Land of heaven. He has already done this in history with the mighty deeds of his Passion and Resurrection. I am to enter into that history with the faith that it is the pattern and mystery of my own life as a disciple, that it is not merely a symbol of something, but literally embodies God’s will to save.

I am not striving for a personal best in Lent, so much as some way of interiorising the message of the Cross of Christ, which was undertaken out of love for the Father’s will, love for those whom the Father loved and a desire to have a loving solidarity with the suffering and rejected. Jesus promises that he drew me to himself when he was lifted up. Close to him, trusting in his will and power to save, I will find the strength to face the truth about myself, about my essential weakness, and surrender it to be drawn into the loving power of his Cross.

This is anything other than dreary, and healthier, I think, than seeking merely to cultivate an enhanced technique for saving myself from temptation.

Pastor Iuventus is a Catholic priest in London

This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (13/3/15).

Take up our special subscription offer – 12 issues currently available for just £12!