All reality mediates divine presence. The Christian liturgical year attempts to name and celebrate this insight in special moments. Lent is just such a moment.
As we leave the Christmas season, we are reminded as were the Magi: “to go home by a different route.” Such is the hope of Christmas. In other words do life differently.
The scriptures – our story – have much to say about Empire, whether it be the Egyptian, the Babylonian or the Roman. This past Christmas the Vice-President of the United States in his card reminded us of our moment of Empire when he wrote: “And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His (God’s) notice, is it probable that an Empire can arise without His aid!” The Bush-Cheney presidency see God and Empire as radically interconnected. Bishop Thomas Gumbleton has it correct when he suggests rather that: “Jesus came in the midst of the Roman Empire to change it, to show that Empires don’t follow the way of God and yet our vice-president is suggesting that God wants us to be an Empire. What a contradiction to everything that Jesus stands for.” The season of Lent situates us in the heart of Empire. The “different route” seems more dangerous now, the commitment more public.
A moment of this is dramatically played out in the Gospels. We are witness to two fires. In the one, Jesus stands on trial in the heart of Empire. The reader is then taken to where Peter is warming himself at the fires of Empire. It is here, at this fire where Peter denies knowing the Way, knowing the different route, knowing Jesus. As we warm ourselves at these fires of Empire, do we also deny by our attitudes, values and life-style the Way of Jesus? As Christians warmed by this fire are we really denying Jesus and all that he is and stands for? There is much debate in this land. President Bush is a born again Christian. Over forty percent of Christians in the United States claim to be born again. Polls in the U.S. show that church goers support this presidency more than non church goers. Although the statistics do not reflect the Canadian reality, we nonetheless are participants in the fruits of this Empire. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor and theologian who was hanged by the Nazi Empire in April of 1945 wrote before his death: “It is not the religious act which marks the Christian but rather gestures of solidarity with the suffering God in secular life.” Lent is a time to ponder Bonhoeffer’s insight and ask ourselves – are we truly about The Way, are we truly of God as revealed in Jesus?
The second fire – Jesus cooking a meal on the seashore. The disciples having fished until early morning arrived at the sea shore exhausted. Jesus invites them to come to the fire, to rest, to eat and to enjoy the gifts of the sea and earth and the work of human hands. At this fire Peter does not deny that he knows Jesus but rather says three times that he loves Jesus. And each time he professes love Jesus tells him to feed and nourish and bring hope. Peter embraces going home by a different route, knowing The Way, knowing Jesus. The seduction of Empire no longer defines Peter.
Idols drive Empire – greed, money, resources, domination and a military is needed to achieve the spread of Empire and its goals. Lent is a time to remind ourselves of the first of the Ten Commandments: “I am the Lord your God, you shall not have strange gods before me.” In the eyes of God this is the first because God knows that we become what we worship.
A priest friend of mine, now in the fullness of life used to always say: “I have been a priest for over 50 years and no one has ever confessed to God the sin of idolatry.” Idols blind us, make us deaf to the cry. Idols distract us and do not want us to come to our senses. The prophet Isaiah, a favorite during the season of Lent, writes beautifully a critique of idols. The early Christian community saw Jesus very much in the spirit and tradition of Isaiah. Jesus is the servant of whom Isaiah speaks. Jesus is the voice, the New Deed being done. In Jesus we see the revelation of God and this revelation is a critique of Empire and its idols.
Martin Luther King Jr. from a speech that he gave in 1967 says it well: “I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. A nation that continues year after year to spend more on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.
“These are revolutionary times. Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism and militarism.”
Lent is a time of preparation for a spiritual moment. That spiritual moment is the Resurrection of Jesus and his Spirit empowering us to continue in discipleship being that moment for God’s people in our time.
Jack Miles in his book: God, A Biography, develops an interesting thesis. Miles points out that in the Jewish scriptures God is very present in Genesis, almost on every page. As we move to the Book of Esther, God is not even mentioned and only once vaguely referred to. God recedes as the human – the icon of God – ascends in prominence. It is the task of the Human to come to his senses, pay attention and be the moment of God, the Body of Christ.
Etty Hillesum in her diary: An Interrupted Life names it well. She writes: “In these times we have to help God be God.” Etty is often referred to as the adult Anne Frank for she too died in Auschwitz. Etty was a true mystic with a passion for God and God’s reign living in the belly of the Nazi Empire.
Lent is a beautiful moment when we are invited to stop what we are doing and just be. It is a time to come to our senses and pay attention in an age of distractions. It is a time to warm ourselves at the fires of the Risen One as we share and partake of the gifts of the sea and land and the work of our human hands. It is a time to commit ourselves to a life expressed so well in Isaiah 58: “to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke. Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”
Then our voice will be heard on high and we will taste and see the goodness of the Lord. We will truly hear the word of Jesus and will worship in Spirit and Truth.
Paul E. Hansen