Lent: Because it’s where we are in the story
Whenever we prepare to enter the various seasons in the Christian calendar that commemorate seasons and events in the life of Jesus — especially penitential fasting seasons like Lent, which mark Jesus’s dark seasons — we have to remember not to observe them as though Jesus has not been raised from the dead. We can’t go back the Judean wilderness, circa A.D. 27, for Lent. It isn’t the path of wisdom to observe a memorial fast in a self-enforced ignorance of the mighty works of God in history. Redemptive history is linear, and you can’t play it again, Sam.
And yet the Church calendar, by annually calling us to re-trace the steps of Jesus, properly reflects that there is a certain circularity built into time. This is true both in creation and in history. Our weeks, for example, keep perfect seven-step time. Likewise our seasons: every year winter gives way to spring, spring to summer, summer to autumn, and then winter comes again. The leaves appear, then grow, then turn, then fall. Moons wax and wane. As for history, it’s littered with encores — some sublime, some pathetic. But patterns repeat themselves often enough, and certain motifs recur frequently enough, to where the Preacher was right to say “what has been is what will be,” and to douse the excitement of those who look at their times and exclaim “see, this is new!”
The practical question this puts before us is how to observe a circular calendar in a way that respects the dominant linearity of history. For Lent, we do this by examining carefully Jesus’s fasting and temptation in the wilderness, in light of how His forty days in the wilderness recapitulated certain key events in history. And then, in light of all that, we figure out how Jesus’s Lenten fast gives us our cues as to how to act in the world on this side of His mighty resurrection, glorious ascension, and sending of the Holy Spirit.
In the case of Lent it takes no peculiar brilliance to do this. The New Testament authors make it pretty easy to connect the dots. Jesus’s forty days in the wilderness recapitulate Israel’s forty years in the wilderness. Israel’s years in the wilderness serve as a common — perhaps the most common — New Testament metaphor for where the Church presently lives: in the wilderness, heading from exile to a new home, with the redemption of her Lord and the sending of the Spirit at her back. In that sense, all of life is Lenten; the fasting and temptation of Jesus our model for all of life. He fasted and was tempted, not that we would not fast or be tempted, but that our fasting and temptations might be like His.
So Lent, like the wilderness, may be stark. But it isn’t depressing — provided we know where we come from and where we are going. Jesus went out into the wilderness barely dry from His baptism, with the words of His Father ringing in His ears: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” Lent calls us to remember, as we go into the wilderness, the water of new birth running over us as it did over Jesus, with our Father’s declaration to Him resounding through His ears into our own — “my beloved children, with whom I am well pleased.” We hear that mighty declaration in and through the water: as the Israelites heard it at the Red Sea, as Jesus heard it in the Jordan. That is where we come from. And if Jesus stood under trial in the wilderness, triumphed on the cross, and was raised from the dead, then we may have confidence that he has purchased for us joy inutterable: the redemption of our bodies and restoration of all things, bringing together heaven and earth. That is where we are going.