In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Last Wednesday was the first time in two years where I stood in-person putting ashes on the foreheads of people that I love saying, “From dust you came to dust you shall return.” It felt personal and holy. It is also felt like the proper beginning of that season of preparation and training that we call Lent. When something significant (good or bad) is going to happen in our lives, we are likely all different from one another in how we approach it. I know some people who do their best simply not to think about it. They don’t let that future date impinge upon their present and sort of bump into last minute. Others think about nothing else but that future event, worrying about every possibility, obsessing upon details. And then there is everything in-between.
Whatever your particular approach is to life, the Christian tradition from ancient times has some basic suggestions for Christians of all kinds taking on a shared project for the 40 days preceding our joyous celebration of Easter. What is that shared project you might ask? It is you. We volunteer for all sorts of projects in the world and it can feel good to make a difference in ways that matter there. This time, however, the project is yourself. As anyone knows who has ever taken themselves seriously, it can be a fearsome thing. The self can be elusive. We talk about ‘losing track of oneself’ and we understand what means even though the sentence otherwise makes no sense. How do you lose ‘oneself’? We all know that you can. The exhortation to Christians this first Sunday in Lent is to make yourself your project.
Why? The most straightforward answer is that Jesus did it. We’re told in scripture that after his baptism by John the Baptist, as he was preparing for his ministry, Jesus “was led by the Spirit in the wilderness” where he struggled and was tempted for forty days. Our Lenten project of personal reflection and discipline is an imitation of this aspect of the life of Jesus. Jesus invited others to follow him and every Lent we follow him alone into this wilderness. And in that clearing, in that emptiness, we confront ourselves.
We’re told that Jesus ate nothing during those days. He chose that freely. He chose to fast from food and be hungry. It may then not be surprising that eventually–near the end of his fast–alone in the wilderness terribly hungry he began hearing a voice. Not a good one! The voice of the devil, that lying voice of deception, destruction, and death invites the hungry Jesus to turn stones into bread and eat. Seems harmless enough, right? After all, later in his ministry Jesus would multiply loaves of bread on the hills of Galilee and feed thousands upon thousands of people. That charity and generosity was no sin, so why would this be? It does not make one a devil if one’s inclination is to encourage Jesus to accept the bodily goodness of creation and to eat. Why would the Devil start his attack here? How could a loaf of bread undo Jesus’ coming ministry?
The reason is that the bread was not simply bread. It was Jesus’ chosen stand-in for all temptations, it was his chosen site of the battle. Perhaps it was because he remembered how in the book of Exodus as the Israelites were being prepared to enter the promised land, God fed them with the bread-like manna, but with the instructions (Ex. 16:13-21). They were to gather what they needed for the day, no more and no less. There would be no storage. It was to be their daily bread. They would have to learn, as through a kind of training, to live each day with the faith that there would be bread enough for today. Jesus would later instruct his followers that when they pray, they should ask for exactly this kind of daily bread and no more.
Jesus was using bread to practice saying “No” in the context of a temptation where there is less at stake than in some others. The “No” involved in his fasting trained a very similar muscle memory to temptations where there is much more at stake. His later followers would practice their yes and no with food in the wide variety of Christian traditions of various forms of fasting. Those traditions arose not out of hatred of the body, but out of the attempt to acquire influence over oneself through practices that could be learned and coached.
Our own choices and influence over ourselves are far from the only determinants to our lives. Other things beyond our control (like the global pandemic, or wars, or the national economy) always have their say, but that does not mean that what we choose about ourselves does not matter or amount to much. It does enough that Christianity for its whole history has called us to distinguish between ‘what is in our power’ and ‘what is not’ and primarily to concern ourselves about what falls before us as the subject of our own choices. In this way, Christianity has promoted spiritual practices of self-attention to care for oneself, to cultivate a certain intentionality about oneself, so that one chooses to be who we are to the extent that that is in our power.
Alone in the desert, Jesus engages in serious work. When the satanic voice calls him to turn stones to bread, he says “No” just as he had been practicing in the previous days reminding himself of the words of Moses saying, “One does not live by bread alone.” Jesus, no doubt, was invoking the full quote from Deuteronomy and it is instructive. There Moses tells the people, “Remember the long way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart … he humbled you by letting you hunger, then feeding you with manna … in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (8:3). Faced with such testing of his heart in the desert, Jesus overcomes the first temptation of the Devil.
Jesus continues to be tempted and tested. The lying voices claims to be able to offer him rule over the earth in exchange for his worship. Jesus once again quotes Moses saying, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him” (Deut. 6:13). The final temptation involves Jesus hurling himself down from a high point in Jerusalem as way of disclosing his true identity to the world as he is visibly rescued. Jesus shuns that temptation quoting Moses saying, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test” (Deut. 6:16). Notice that each temptation is increasingly spiritual, that is, more and more removed by the comparatively simple bodily choice of eating bread or not. Jesus trained himself to say “no” with bread knowing that more severe temptations of the mind were to come his way. When they did he was prepared.
Fasting is far from the only spiritual practice that can be used to gain some traction on oneself. I’m offering a zoom class starting this Wednesday on Wednesday nights during Lent where we’ll explore several others. This Lent find an angle of approach to yourself so that are more fully able to be who your are meant to be. Jesus never cured the hunger of our lives because he did not consider it an affliction in need of a cure. Jesus never dissolved the very real struggles and suffering of human life. Instead, he dignified our condition by making it his own and calling us to a daily spiritual practice of making decisions about who we are moment by moment whatever is happening to us.
In Lent our spiritual practices prepare us for Christ’s victory over death on Easter. That celebration of resurrection is indeed about him, but like the temptation in the wilderness, it is also about us. Don’t look at these spiritual practices only as matters of self-discipline and self-control, the point of these practices is most fundamentally a small experience of freedom and newness, where even something small that has held us in its grasp loosens it grip a bit, and it is that experience of the new, that experience of you being yourself in a new way, that is the utterly essential preparation for the newness of the Easter resurrection of Jesus.
May the Holy Spirit steady our hearts during this Lenten season, draw us to Jesus, give us the courage to face ourselves as ourselves, prepare us to become who we are meant to be, not for the sake of our own goodness or safety, but so that we are made worthy of that immortal life prepared for all the saints to the glory of the immortal Father and Source of all things. Amen.