Since Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, I have a public-service announcement to make:
LENT IS A FAST. FASTING MEANS ABSTAINING FROM SOMETHING INHERENTLY GOOD, FOR A SET TIME, FOR SPIRITUAL REASONS. IF YOU PLAN TO “GIVE UP” SOMETHING THAT’S ALREADY INHERENTLY BAD, THAT’S NOT LENT. THAT’S REPENTANCE.
Alright. I feel better now.
The forty days before Easter got to be associated with Jesus’s forty days in the wilderness and by extension with the Hebrews’ forty years in the wilderness and the forty days and forty nights of rain in the Noah narrative fairly early, as far as I’ve been able to read. The associations make a good deal of sense: in each of these scenarios divine providence becomes more visible than usual, the structures of daily meals and agriculture as a means to receive food and… well, dry land go away for a spell, and on the other side of the forty units of time something entirely new begins.
To observe Lent year after year means to turn circles into straight lines: we know that 325 and a quarter days ago we were entering into this season, and we know that 405 and a quarter days from now we’ll be celebrating yet another Easter, and yet we recognize, because we confess the coming-again of Christ, that all of these cycles of Lent and Easter and Ordinary Time all constitute a span of time when we wander in the wilderness, hoping for the promised land to come. That’s the ongoing message of the epistle to the Hebrews. But we also know that every time we gather, whether in Lent or on Easter, we gather around a table that is already the Kingdom of Heaven, where Christ does indeed eat with us. That’s the four gospels. For both of these to be true is a contradiction, and it’s one of the many and glorious contradictions that confronts us as we live in this time between the times.
Contradiction, I think, makes this particular narrative compelling each time I return to it: what the trouble-maker demands in the first test is that Jesus do in the Judean desert what he will do, several chapters later, in a deserted place near the Sea of Galilee. To make bread for the people is not anathema to Jesus–he did so for five thousand families while travelling in the North–and to break bread and say “This is my body” is an act of Jesus that all generations of Christians have remembered and repeated, week after week, knowing that each repetition ends and era and begins a new one. Yet the same Jesus who later threatens that the rocks might offer praise at his entry into Jerusalem refuses at this moment to accept the bread that their bodies might become.
So goes the temptation to receive rule over all the nations. Certainly the community that hears the gospel of Luke read for the first time already sings songs about Jesus, King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Certainly the first ears to hear of the tests of Jesus confesses that Jesus is the Son of Man, the bearer of divine Justice from the Ancient of Days. And yet Jesus refuses to receive as legitimate the power over nations that the trouble-maker (that’s the etymological root of diabolos, as far as I’ve read, and I like the associations) offers, and I have to wonder, every time I read of the persecution of the faithful in this place or that, why we call Jesus the anointed King when anyone with ears to hear should be able to say that the world over which Jesus reigns doesn’t reflect the character of its monarch.
Finally the temple-stunt confounds me because just a few verses after this refusal (and a couple weeks ago in the lectionary calendar) Jesus escapes an angry Synagogue crowd. When the sea rages Jesus not only rides in rickety fishing boats but at one point walks on the water as if it were dry land. This is not a person who is averse to public displays of divine protection, yet at the pinnacle of the Temple, he refuses.
To say that Jesus refuses the entity known as diabolos rather than the acts themselves seems like an easy solution to this puzzle, but I wonder whether it’s that simple either. After all, Jesus grants the request of the unclean spirit that calls itself Legion. He allows the plot of Judas, who in Luke is taken with the spirit of diabolos, to shape the final hours before his execution. In other words, in other moments Jesus does not seem to have any issue with letting an unclean spirit call the shots. This too is a contradiction.
And the contradictions, I think, mark tests as tests. Because we’ve read and heard these stories so many times, we think that the proper answers must have been easy, that the difference, when Jesus does what Jesus does, must be a matter of will rather than of wisdom and discernment. But on every side contradiction and complexity shoot through these tests, and I for one think that the bare-bones, hurry-it-up style of the narrative invites some serious reflection on what it means to be tested and what it means to abstain from good things like providing food and securing rule (did someone say this is an election year?) and showing forth the power of God and even letting evil work evil for the sake of God’s bringing good out of it. I’m not sure what any of these four means in any given moment, but that’s the point: with a bit of Deuteronomy and some serious reflection, we might be able to tell which such occasions are from God and which from diabolos, but for someone like me who doesn’t often see devils embodied, it’s hard. It’s complex. It’s a test.
In this season of Lent, may the faithful seek wisdom as well as willpower as we face temptations to do good things that turn out to be bad.