Four months ago, as Lent began, we talked in church about how the liturgical seasons aren’t just there to give us a reason to change the paraments and church hangings; they are a ritualized reminder of how life moves in seasons. Lent, which we are accustomed to observing in February and March for 40 days, is a ritual that tells us that we will necessarily go through moments of isolation, introspection, and hardship; the ritual, however, reminds us that seasons are not forever, and that we can trust that Easter will come.
Little did any of us dream, at that moment, how long our Lent would last.
Jesus sat in the wilderness, fasting and praying. Isolated from all whom he loved, going with out the distractions and pleasures that he had known… I wonder if he knew, when he left the banks of the Jordan, that it would be 40 days? Did he have a little countdown, a series of hashmarks on a rock, to keep track? Did the devil show up at a pre-arranged time?
Or was Jesus’ wilderness time a bit more like ours – fluid, uncertain?
This time of pandemic has held up a mirror to the United States. We have seen, more clearly than in years past, that we are lacking the infrastructure to endure economic bumps in the road, to care for those who are most necessary to the functioning of our society. We have seen the cultural emphasis on individuality rather than community, on doing what we each want rather than what our community needs. We have seen our willingness to push all of the complex issues of our society into the hands of law enforcement, unfairly expecting them to be a catch-all solution for everything we don’t want to deal with.
But the US is not alone in reckoning with the temptations that have long plagued us. Around the world, nations and peoples are looking closely at the legacy of colonialism and white supremacy. We are unpacking the toxic narratives of “civilization” as the justification for plunder and destruction. We are grappling with re-learning history without centering white perspectives. We are seeing clearly the legacy that centuries of domination have normalized: the mirror of this time has made even more clear the inherent inequality of our whole system; and given urgency to a movement for justice that has been simmering for a very long time. The pandemic has stripped away our illusions and shown us ourselves – warts and all.
I wonder, in this long Lenten season, if the 40-day fast that we practice as a ritual isn’t a storyteller’s trick, handed down by the Gospel’s oral tradition to emphasize the length of Jesus’ time away. Because whether it was 40 days, or 37, or 53, or whether he lost count entirely suddenly seems less important than the questions he struggled with, the ways of being that he chose. Jesus was in the wilderness for as much time as he needed to see the kin-dom more clearly than he saw the world as it is.
The pandemic has put us in the wilderness, perhaps long enough to be able to hear the whispers of the Tempter for what they are. It has taken us longer than 40 days, and we do not know when the end will come, or what more temptation will be put before us. We are still in the time of learning who we need to be, for such a time as this. Are we a people who will respond to the complexities of this world in flexible and compassionate ways? Or are we a people who choose to push discomfort away, into criminality and marginalization? Are we a people who will cling to a rigidly colonial perspective on how the world should be, or are we a people who will listen to those who have long been silenced, and step into a new understanding of how the world could yet be?
Our church calendar says we are in Ordinary Time. The larger conversation, however, tells me we are still very much in Lent. We are still sitting in our discomfort and anxiety, learning to see with greater clarity the outlines of the kin-dom of God, free from the distractions and temptations that have long held our focus. We do not know how long it will take, but we know enough to prepare ourselves for the temptations that will rise up before us. We do not know if we will be in the wilderness for weeks or for months, but we know that what we learn here will shape our ministry, and lead us into the new life to which God continually calls us.
Rev. Eliza Tweedy is the Pastor and Teacher at First Church Congregational in Rochester, NH. She and her wife have three kids, three cats, and more books than they can count. Eliza blogs at sermonizing.wordpress.com
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