This past Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, marked the beginning of our Lenten journey together. Before jumping into a reflection on today’s Gospel, I have three Lenten Frequently Asked Questions to address. The first: Why 40 days? 40 days is a significant number in the Scriptures. In Genesis, the flood which destroyed the earth lasted 40 days and 40 nights of rain. The Hebrews spent 40 years in the wilderness before reaching the Promised Land. Moses fasted for 40 days before receiving the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. And most importantly, and the main reason Lent is 40 days, Jesus spent 40 days fasting in the wilderness in preparation for his public ministry. Question number two: Why is it called Lent? Lent is an Old English word meaning “lengthen” and Lent is observed in Spring, when the days begin to get longer. Lastly, you will notice the purple adornments that fill this space from the altar space to the lights around the room to my chasuble. The third question, then, is: Why purple? Purple is the color of royalty and evokes both the pain and suffering of Jesus’ crucifixion—purple was the color of the robe they put on Jesus—and also, being associated with royalty it points towards Christ’s Resurrection and sovereignty, which Lent is ultimately leading us towards. I may pop quiz you on these later, so be ready!
In today’s Gospel we hear the account of Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness, and his subsequent temptation by the devil. One thing you might learn about me is that I am so often fascinated just as much by what Scripture doesn’t say, as what it does say. It drives me crazy when Gospel readings omit certain verses—which all the more draws my attention to those omissions. I am also quite fascinated by speculation of the years in Jesus’ life between when he taught in the temple at age 12 and the inauguration of his public ministry at age 33. What happened during those 21 years, during his teens and twenties? There are stories and myths that have emerged in different cultures. That kind of thing fascinates me.
The reason I mention all this is because we don’t really know much of what Jesus did during these 40 days in the desert. He wasn’t tempted in the desert for 40 days—the temptation with the devil was afterwards. It says, “He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him…” and the temptations proceeds. The tempter came after those 40 days when he was famished. Too often the experience of temptation has become so wrapped up with the 40 days that Lent has come to be regarded as a period of time to focus extra hard to resist temptation, to fast from something tempting, or to kick bad habits. These are all fine things, but I am led to ponder what Jesus did during those 40 days. The scripture says the Spirit led him into the wilderness. And it says he fasted. That’s all we know.
In the Old Testament, people fasted when they wanted God to hear their prayers. There are account in the Old Testament of people fasting in times of war, when loved ones were seek, when seeking God’s forgiveness, when faced with danger, and when seeking God’s will. In a similar way, in the New Testament, prayer and fasting go hand-in-hand, and fasting was especially commended when there was a strong desire for God’s blessing and guidance.
As it is clear from Scripture that Jesus fasted during these 40 days, of which we know very little, it can probably be assumed that that time was spent in prayer as he inwardly prepared himself for a very public ministry which would shape the world for the rest of time. If we are to model these forty days of Lent on Jesus’ forty days in the desert, I think these forty days for us must be a time of a deepened or renewed prayer life. I use the phrase “prayer life” to commend to you the practice of daily prayer. If you don’t already have a practice of daily prayer, perhaps Lent is a good time to start. This can be 10 minutes of silent prayer in the morning or at night. It can be a service of morning or evening prayer from the Book of Common Prayer. There’s an iPhone app called Pray-As-You-Go, which guides one through 10-12 minutes of music, scripture, prayer, and reflection—something you can listen to on the way to work or at the end of the day.
I highly commend to you—even if you tell yourself it’s just for Lent—strive to find a prayer practice that you can do each day. Prayer is really just about opening our hearts to God’s Spirit in whatever way most guides you deeper into that connection. Above all else, prayer must be the grounding and foundation of a Christian life. Done daily, it grounds us and keeps us oriented towards God, oriented towards what is true and lasting, and keeps us moving forward in our spiritual path of growth and discovery. I’ve taught you some Greek words over this past year—metanoia meaning change of heart and mind (often poorly translated as repentance) and theosis, which is the process of growing in participating in Christ’s divine nature. Prayer is at the heart of both of these processes.
For those of you who already have a daily prayer life, perhaps Lent may be a time of stilling your heart and listening for new ways God may be calling you deeper in your spiritual walk. The Lenten journey and fasting is not about external temptation, but is about preparing our hearts for the work God calls us to, much like Jesus spent forty days preparing for his coming ministry. Along these lines, in 2016 Pope Francis proposed that if we wish to fast, perhaps this shall be our fast:
- Fast from hurting words and say kind words.
- Fast from sadness and be filled with gratitude.
- Fast from anger and be filled with patience.
- Fast from pessimism and be filled with hope.
- Fast from worries and trust in God.
- Fast from complaints and contemplate simplicity.
- Fast from pressures and be prayerful.
- Fast from bitterness and fill your heart with joy.
- Fast from selfishness and be compassionate to others.
- Fast from grudges and be reconciled.
- Fast from words and be silent so you can listen.
I pray that these forty days of Lent might become for us each and for us as a community a renewal or revitalization of our inner life. What daily prayer practice might be a realistic practice you can take on that would strengthen you in your walk with Christ? In what new way might God be calling you to journey deeper in your faith? What will these forty days be for you and in what ways might you be strengthened in these forty days to do the work God has called you to?
© The Rev. Justin R. Cannon