On this First Sunday in Lent, we stand with Jesus — who we are told by the gospel writers is in the desert — that place of wildness. Today, I want to speak about water and desert.
First: the water. Both the Book of Genesis and the First Letter of St. Peter mention Noah and the great flood. I’ve recently returned from Rome, and had a grand tour at the Vatican Museum with my students with the superb guide Dr. Elizabeth Lev.
At one point in that vast collection, she brought us to the area of Early Christian art, and showed us the sarcophagi (ancient burial caskets) with carved relief of the Noah story, complete with animals entering the ark; and the rainbow – God’s sign of the covenant. Lev points out that the Noah story figured greatly in early Christian art, even before images of Christ. Mainly because of persecutions – Jesus’s image was rare.The ark stood for God’s rescue of his people and his creation.
Peter’s reading also mentions Noah and sees in Jesus – the “new ark.” Coming from the city of Newark, N.J., this gives new vitality to my childhood upbringing. So we seek the refreshment of a Lent to further our baptismal promises, and know that we have been washed in these saving waters.
G.K. Chesterton has an apt comment about how we are on this Lenten journey together, he writes: “We are all in the same boat, in a stormy sea, and we owe each other a terrible loyalty.” This Lenten season asks us to bring along with us – in our prayers, acts of generosity and trying to identify with, and rescuing those most hurting in our world.
Let’s turn for a moment to our second motif — the desert. Mark’s gospel and his account of Jesus in the desert has less details than the other evangelists; saying that Jesus was alone those forty days, tempted by the devil, and ministered to by the angels.
In such a desolate fashion, we come to certain moments when it’s time to simplify our lives, to organize ourselves for greater effectiveness, to set priorities, to take stock and consider what really matters, to rest and to pray.
Such might be the work of Lent, but it’s not easy.
Recently walking through the check out counter of the supermarket, I noticed on the rack “Real Simple – Life Made Easier;” it’s a magazine dedicated to “ideas, tips and simple ways to make life even easier.” On the cover of the issue, there were these bold promises:
- Organize solutions for every room.
- Energize your life with twenty-five bright ideas to recharge your mood, routine and rooms.
- The no-cost makeover, update your home, wardrobe, and life (for free)!
Sounds simple, but to my mind, it’s not so easy.
Real change, transformation and reconditioning are very hard.
My good friend and seminary classmate, Father Ed Holterhoff, the pastor of St. Timothy’s in Morro Bay, says: “True change of mind and habits is the real work of Lent. True progress means persistence and practice.” For example, the substance-abuse addict doesn’t recover in forty days, rather a lifetime commitment to good health.
A person doesn’t exercise for a few weeks, and then stops. You need to keep up to make progress.
So Lent is the initial stage, maybe the first step – in a life-long spiritual effort.
So what do we do with the Lent? Father Ed suggests:
Take the gospel seriously. And listen to the words of Saint Paul on Ash Wednesday when he tells us: “We are ambassadors for Christ.” The only impression people may have of Christ – may come for our genuine concern and cares for others.
Also, on Ash Wednesday, Saint Matthew reminds us to do very practical things in Lent. Give alms to those in need. Pray for those unfulfilled aspects of life that need growth, renewal and refreshment. Fast in order that we may identify more fully with the world’s hunger for food, justice and a wholesome environment.
Yes, take the gospel seriously. Be a person of forgiveness and peace – as Jesus was – his forgiveness on the cross, and his peace to whatever home he entered.
The lyrics to Stephen Sondheim’s “Anyone Can Whistle” have a point – how even very simple things are often challenging. He writes:
“Anyone can whistle, that’s what they say – easy.”
“Anyone can whistle, any old day – easy.”
Relax, let go, let fly!
So someone tell me, why can’t I?
What’s hard is simple.
What’s natural comes hard.
Maybe you can show me:
How to let go,
Lower my guard,
Learn to be free.
Maybe if you whistle,
Whistle for me.
The simple thing about Lent is to learn how to let go, lower my guard, and ready myself for the freedom — that is Easter.