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A SEASON FOR THE SPIRIT
Readings for the Days of Lent
By MARTIN L. SMITH
Church Publishing IncorporatedCopyright © 2004 Martin L. Smith
All rights reserved.
The Beginning of Lent
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THE VIEW FROM JERICHO
Where do I stand at the beginning of another Lent?" Each one of us has a particular answer. I am at a certain point on a journey. Perhaps I have made progress since this day last year, wandered, or hung back. But the question also invites us all to make our annual pilgrimage to the same place, a certain common point for starting over again. The church gives us the map references for this place encoded in the gospels.
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. (Mark 1:9–13)
If I close my eyes I find myself at once standing at the vantage point for taking in the movement that the scripture describes, the swift movement of a young man leaving the river bank and Jericho.
When I set out for Jericho on a day in May 1973 my mind was full of memories of the lectures I had attended at Oxford given by Kathleen Kenyon, the archaeologist who had excavated it. But once I was there it was impossible to focus on archaeology.
Imagine yourself with me sitting in these ruins. We are looking south down the deepest cleft in the earth and in the distance the Dead Sea is shimmering in the intense heat like a lake of mercury. To the east the river Jordan snakes towards it, and the mountains of Moab from which Moses had seen the promised land tower beyond. To the west rise the massive brown hills of the wilderness, rent by deep gorges. Looking up towards the summit of the nearest mountain, Jebel Quruntul, we see an ancient monastery clinging to the cliffside.
This is the place where we are all invited to stand at the beginning of Lent to take in the meaning of this movement from the river to the desert, and to be caught up in it ourselves. Lent is the season for the Spirit of truth, who drove Jesus into the wilderness to initiate him into the truth that sets free. Mark's harsh word "drove" was softened by Matthew and Luke to the milder expression "led." But this word "drove" is very precious to me. I know that inertia, illusion, and fear hold me back from answering God's invitation to enter into the truth and gain freedom. Yet even Jesus, free as he was from inertia like mine, needed the full force of the Wind of God (Spirit, Breath, Wind are all equally valid translations of pneuma) to make him enter the testing-ground of the wilderness. If I am going to go forward into that truth for which God knows I am ready at this point in my life, I am going to need the Spirit to drive me.
This year I hiked in the deserts of southern Utah, and praying under the stars one night I smiled. Something I had seen that day had set me thinking about the vulnerability, the self-surrender of Jesus, giving himself over to the Spirit's driving force. I had seen some tumbleweed, matted thorns uprooted and rolled into a ball, bowled along unresistingly by the hot desert wind. The desert is a place of forces that cannot be resisted, flash floods and winds from which there is no escape. The forty days for Jesus began with this handing over of himself to the Spirit. "The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit" (John 3:8).
Perhaps this word "surrender" should be enough for my prayer on this Ash Wednesday. Not the surrender of submission to an enemy, but the opposite, the laying down of resistance to the One who loves me infinitely more than I can guess, the One who is more on my side than I am myself. Dwelling on this thought of letting go, and handing myself over to the Spirit will bring me much closer to the experience of Jesus than the word "discipline" that so many of us have been trained to invoke at the beginning of Lent. It should help us smile at our anxious attempts to bring our life under control, the belt-tightening resolutions about giving up this or taking on that. What we are called to give up in Lent is control itself. Deliberate efforts to impose discipline on our lives often serve only to lead us further away from the freedom that Jesus attained through surrender to the Spirit, and promised to give. "Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom" (2 Corinthians 3:17).
Lent is about the freedom that is gained only through exposure to the truth. And "What is truth?" Pilate's question is partially answered by unpacking the Greek word aletheia, which we translate as truth. The word literally means "unhiddenness." Truth is not a thing, it is rather an event. Truth happens to us when the coverings of illusion are stripped away and what is real emerges into the open. "When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth" (John 16:13). The truth we are promised if we live the demands of this season consists not in new furniture for the mind but in exposure to the reality of God's presence in ourselves and the world. The Spirit promises to bring us into truth by stripping away some more of the insulation and barriers that have separated us from living contact with reality—the reality of God, of God's world, and of our true selves.
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Spirit of truth, you know me intimately, you alone know what barriers to truth in me are ready to come down now so that I can enter more freely into the reality of God than ever before. Give me perseverance in my prayer and reflection day by day this Lent so that when the time is ready these barriers may give way like the walls of Jericho.
Psalm 139 Joshua 6
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IN A MUDDY RIVER
If you were to picture the scene of Jesus' baptism in your imagination, what would it be like? What feelings would arise? I did not realize how much I had been influenced by the typical representations of the scene in conventional Christian art until I went to a showing of Pasolini's film The Gospel According to St. Matthew. I found myself taken by surprise at the scene of Jesus' baptism by John, and wept. It took a lot of thinking and praying to gain insight about why I had been moved by this scene in particular. In time I realized that hundreds of stained-glass windows and paintings depicted only the two figures in the water. But the film shook me into the realization that Jesus' baptism was not a private ceremony but a mass affair with hundreds of men and women swarming in the river, and hundreds more waiting on the bank to take their place. Religious pictures had blunted the impact of the gospels' insistence on the sheer numbers involved. "And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins" (Mark 1:5). Luke repeats the word "multitudes" and paints the picture of a mass baptism: "Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized ..." (Luke 3:21).
Insight gradually dawned that I had been moved by an intuition of Jesus' solidarity with ordinary, struggling men and women. John preached a "baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins" (Mark 1:4). It was for the masses of mediocre people whose failures, lukewarmness, and mundane unfaithfulness made the prospect of coming judgment terrible. New converts to Judaism passed through a baptismal rite as part of their initiation. Now everyone needed a fresh start as radical as the one made by a pagan who was embracing Judaism. John was offering to the masses of ordinary people a baptism which could give them that new beginning.
Jesus' reaction to John's preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins was a crucial turning-point. He could have kept his distance, an innocent young man conscious of unbroken faithfulness to God, looking with pity on the thousands of ordinary people who were overwhelmed by the realization of their own moral inadequacy. But instead of looking down on them from afar, secure in his own guiltlessness, Jesus plunged into the waters with them and lost himself in the crowd. He threw away his innocence and separateness to take on the identity of struggling men and women who were reaching out en masse for the lifeline of forgiveness.
It was at that moment when Jesus had thrown away his innocent individuality in exchange for that identity of needy, failed, struggling human beings that "the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, 'You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased'" (Luke 3:21–22).
God's pleasure in Jesus can no longer be contained, and it bursts out. God is well pleased precisely in Jesus' self-emptying assumption of our identity. The Spirit reveals to Jesus that he is the beloved Son of God at the precise moment when Jesus had taken on the role of the Son of Man. The strange idiom that Jesus was to use to refer to himself might be better translated "the Human Being." In the muddy river Jesus was taking on the role of representing Humanity, of being its suffering Heart and Self before God. As soon as Jesus had done that decisively, God flooded him with awareness of his unique relationship as Son and anointed him with the life-giving Breath for his mission.
I had wept because the fleeting images of the film had invited me into the Jordan experience as no static stained-glass window or old master had done. Can you feel and see yourself as part of that crowd of humanity in the muddy water, as I started to then, and experience the entry of Jesus into our condition, into our needs? He chooses to plunge into it and make it his own. Nothing about me, about us, is foreign to him. He has chosen to be the Self of our selves.
And now, years later, I believe I wept because of the timing of the descent of the Spirit, the coincidence between the moment of Jesus' solidarity with human beings and the moment of God's revelation of intimate relationship with Jesus. Never did any event so deserve the name "moment of truth." The Spirit descended when Jesus embraced the truth of our interconnectedness, our belonging together in God. As soon as Jesus undertook to live that truth to the full, he was suffused with awareness of his own unique origin from and union with God and was filled with God's Breath. This coincidence reveals the axis on which the gospel turns. The barriers that hold us back from one another in fearful individuality are the identical barriers that block the embrace of God and insulate us from the Spirit. It is one and the same movement of surrender to open ourselves to intimacy and personal union with God in the Spirit, and to open ourselves to compassion and solidarity with our struggling, needy, fellow human beings. I was weeping in that Oxford cinema, though I did not understand this at the time, under the impact of this insight. To be open to the Spirit is also to be open to humanity in all its fractured confusion and poverty and its ardent reaching for fulfillment. To be open to the embrace of the Father is necessarily and inevitably to be open to the whole creation that is held in that embrace.
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Spirit like a dove descending, in spite of my timidity I am appealing to you to center my heart on this axis of truth in these forty days. Every small step you enable me to take towards a deeper compassion for my fellow human beings will lead me further into the experience of the Fathers delight in me and care for me. And vice versa. Every step I take in meditation to intensify my awareness of the love of God poured into my heart through the gift of your indwelling will take me into a deeper identification with the suffering world, ugroaning in labor pains until now" (Romans 8:22).
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THE WIND IN THE WILDERNESS
Listening to others as a priest, as a friend, listening to the voices of my own heart and dreams, listening to everyone around me, I seem all the time to be hearing one or the other of two basic yearnings that gather up all the longings and hopes we have in common. One of these is the yearning to be joined with others, included with them. The other is the yearning to be distinct, unique, with an individual identity and integrity all one's own. I know I am constantly seeking to reconcile and balance these two yearnings and it appears that we all are. In the Jordan Jesus experienced a massive affirmation of uniqueness. He was the Beloved Son of God, the Anointed One. How would that experience fit with his sense of belonging to the crowd seeking forgiveness through John's baptism? If he is the Holy One of God, the Only-Begotten, what becomes of his sense of identification with weak mortals? Everything depends on whether Jesus can reconcile his sense of uniqueness as Son of God with his vocation as Son of Man to compassion and solidarity with needy, failed humanity.
So the Spirit like a dove descending suddenly becomes a gale that whips Jesus away from the throngs and drives him westward across the valley into the isolation of the desert. Being with others now would dissipate the energy needed to make this reconciliation. Only in silence and loneliness can he hammer out the question of who he really is.
His experience in those weeks of isolation and hunger will always be beyond our grasp. Their obscurity is pierced only by brief, enigmatic flashes; we are told that he was put to the test by Satan, entered the territory of wild animals, and was helped by the angels. Three snatches of dialogue with Satan hint that reconciliation between the two poles of Jesus' identity turned on the question of the use of power.
What was at risk was Jesus' solidarity with ordinary human beings. If he is the Son of God, why not use his prerogatives and miraculously provide bread for himself? The answer that rises from Jesus' depths is an answer about the human condition and the human vocation common to us all. Human beings cannot live by bread alone; they live on every word that God utters. Jesus needed to be one of these human beings and chooses to live in that precarious, day-by-day dependence on God's voice, which is the way for us all to live. To exploit miraculous powers would be to insulate himself from that dependence, and force him to part company with ordinary men and women struggling to be faithful to a hidden God.
If he is the Son of God, why could he not hurl himself from the parapet of the temple, confident of being protected from injury? To do so would be to force God's hand. Jesus rejects the suggestion as a horrible violation of simple trust in God. As he does so he deepens his identification with ordinary people who cannot afford to fool around challenging God to cushion them from suffering with sensational miracles. The common way of faith lives with a deep sense of vulnerability. By rejecting the way of spiritual bravado and the lure of invulnerability Jesus enters more deeply into his—our—humanity.
If he is the Son of God, why not simply take power? Jesus recognizes that to rule would be for him precisely to go over to the side of evil. Political mastery tears human solidarity apart by elevating the masters and forcing others into subservience. The glory of charismatic leadership depends on sustaining the illusion that the leader is above and beyond the common masses, an illusion they need as much as he or she does. From deep within Jesus emerges his refusal of the way of power, a refusal he will have to repeat again and again on the way to the cross. His vocation is to be the Servant, he will be "numbered with the transgressors," not the rulers. He will be unbreakably, doggedly, passionately one with God's struggling and needy children. To stand with them means he may never stand over them. He will not get into the position of receiving from his sisters and brothers any of the honor due to their Father alone. Later on he will even contradict a well-meaning man who calls him good. "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone" (Mark 10:18). Not even a single compliment will be allowed to pass if there is any risk of it diverting attention from the One who is all in all, or of compromising Jesus' solidarity with the masses of men and women who have failed to be good.
Excerpted from A SEASON FOR THE SPIRIT by MARTIN L. SMITH. Copyright © 2004 by Martin L. Smith. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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