from the “Seasons of the Christian Life” collection
First Sunday of Lent
For those of us who shape our Christian lives somewhat by the liturgical calendar, the move from Transfiguration Sunday, whose astonishing transfiguring experiences we celebrated last week, to the first Sunday of the penitential Lenten season might seem a rough jolt. Yet I think it is not so. The question that remained at the end of our consideration of transfiguring experiences was how to tell the destructive, death-dealing ones from those that engage God in ways that lead to or enhance salvation. The answer I sketched briefly last week was that the transfiguring experiences, however weird, need to be set in an interpretive context in which they can be seen to engage God in a true way. The experiences do not interpret themselves. By themselves they might be bizarre and meaningless; they might be destructive hallucinations. But grasped within the context of a richly lived Christian life, they can be instruments for engaging God more deeply.
Suppose you are very poor, near to starving and you fear you are indeed starving. You begin to hallucinate. The recurrent hallucination is that the Devil comes to you and tells you that you are the omnipotent Child of God and that all you have to do is command the stones and they will become bread. This hallucination becomes an obsession every day your efforts to find food reach the eleventh hour. So in weak desperation you go to your spiritual advisor for help. (Everyone has a spiritual advisor, I trust.) Your advisor asks you whether you are indeed the Child of God, as your hallucination says, and you answer cynically, “how could I be so hungry if I were?” “But are you the Child of God?” “Well, the Bible says I am,” you say. “If you could change the stones to bread,” the advisor asks, “would you?” “Oh, dear God yes,” you mutter. “Does being the Child of God mean you have miraculous powers?” “No,” you say, “there is nothing special about my powers.” “Then what does it mean that you are the Child of God?” the advisor asks. “The Bible says that God’s entire creation is for the benefit of God’s children,” you answer. “So then,” the advisor says, “have you been to the soup kitchen to eat? Have you gone to the shelters to sleep? Have you gone to social services for welfare? Have you applied for medical benefits? Have you gotten job training? Why are you starving in the midst of all these?” Now you confess with understanding, “this vision of magical powers to turn stones to bread tempted me to a grandiose pride that turned me away from God’s plenty and support all around me. I succumbed to the temptation to believe that as a Child of God I am supposed to be God, though I would have fed only myself. Now I understand and am so sorry.” Your spiritual advisor says, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. You are forgiven. Now seek out your God’s graces.”
The spiritual advisor transported the transfiguring vision of the temptation to grandiose powers of turning stones to bread into the larger context of divine grace. In that interpretive context the vision heals the disengagement from God and opens us to the plenty around us. The people whose starvation cannot be avoided because there are no soup kitchens, sleeping shelters, welfare systems, medical aid and job training, suffer from our failure to do God’s obvious work.
Suppose that you are a sincere and faithful Christian, but a risk taker. Suppose you are a student who believes that God won’t let you fail and so play too much rather than study enough. The reason for your belief is a transfiguring cartoon fantasy of God’s angels on your shoulders to give you the inspired answers on the test. (Perhaps this was prompted by some television shows?) Or suppose you are in business and see a great opportunity that also entails the possibility of losing everything; buoyed by a vision God’s angels protecting His own, without counting the cost you leap at the opportunity, daring God to let you fail. And you fail. In despair at flunking out or losing your entire fortune you go to your spiritual advisor and say, “Jesus! Where was God when I needed him?” The advisor asks, “Wasn’t it your responsibility to study for the exams? Wasn’t it your responsibility to calculate how much you would be willing to lose for the possibility of gaining the business advantage?” “Yes,” you say, “but how can God let his faithful servants be so destroyed?” “Why do you put God to the test?” asks the advisor. “Do you think God to be so small that you can manipulate providence to your advantage? Is God not the creator of the other students who study much harder and the other business people in the competition?” So you confess that you are selfish in wanting the vast impersonal processes of creation to be bent to your own ends. “No, not only that,” responds the advisor, “you need to confess your lack of faith that makes you always put God to the test. You need to confess that you do not have faith to engage the actual world God gives you, with precisely the tests and opportunities of your life. You need to confess that, in putting God to the test, you have been fleeing from the actual life God gives you in which you might not always be a winner and come out on top, in which all you can do is try your best. Why put God to the test when it is you whom God has under examination?” “Yes, I see,” you say. “Jesus, help me live my life”
The transfiguring vision of divine protection, which so many of us have in various forms, tempts us to avoid life and belligerently reject the God who gives us that life. But interpreted precisely as a temptation, that vision stokes the faith and courage to accept even broken and bedraggled lives with gratitude to God.
Suppose you are a political leader of a powerful country and are deeply committed to bringing world peace, establishing universal justice, eradicating hunger, and installing democracy in every nation. Then you have a transfiguring vision that you can impose these goals if you devote yourself to the acquisition of dominating power and wealth. It is not enough to try your best with the resources at hand, because God knows people can undermine peace, subvert justice, starve others to fulfill their own greed, and use government to enrich their own pockets. Your pursuit of dominating power and wealth to do good becomes an infinite passion because you never have enough. Any bombs that are not yours can be used against you; any competitive centers of wealth can buy off your success. Though you sell your soul to the sword and the dollar, the Lord of those earthly powers turns up as the god of chaos and you are mired in un-winnable wars in a global economy that outsources your resources. “Lord Jesus!” you cry, “I was trying so hard to establish your kingdom! Why won’t the lion lie down with that . . . lamb!?” “My friend,” your spiritual advisor says, “it is God who makes lions and lambs. God’s people often think they have to fight about things in order to get justice for themselves; one people’s hunger leads to violence that starves others worse; and no one trusts democracy if they think there is a chance they can get dominating power and wealth by themselves. Are you not the villain here?” “But Lord,” you say, “I have sacrificed my allies, my honor, my self-respect, and my sense of due measure in order to acquire the power to control things for the good. I cannot stop worshipping the promise of power, and I hate that, and myself.” “My friend,” says Jesus, “worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” “How can I break the hold of the promise of power to worship God,” you plead, “without allowing the possibility of more violence, injustice, hunger and tyranny? I’m holding back the sea with my hand in the dike as it is! And I hate what I’ve become too much to ask for the pardon to worship God.” “You do not have to merit pardon to worship God,” says the Lord. “The ever-creating love that courses through those whom you think you need to control runs in your veins too. Your temptation is not really to the chaotic sources of possible power, as you believe, but to bondage to that possible power. You need the bondage. You tell yourself you want to control things for the good: but in fact you are terrified of control that can never be perfect, and want to escape responsibility, and flee to the excuse of Satan’s bondage. Give it up! Just do the best you can. Respect God’s dignity in all the others. And worship the God who creates you more than able always to make worship of God a possibility for your infinite passion. Repent and do it!” “Thank you, Lord Jesus,” you say.
Temptation exposed to the context of God leads not to fall but to God.
Suppose you and your beloved are strolling in a garden when, with a blinding flash, a very skinny theologian approaches you and says, “Faust, let me tempt you with this fruit. The old wives’ tale is that it is poison, but millions of people have eaten it for thousands of years and lived to tell the tale. Those who eat it learn God’s ways to tell the right from wrong. And see how beautiful it is! ” Your beloved, who is a better theologian, replies, “You clever angel of dark light, you can’t trick us out of gratitude to God and obedience to Creation’s givens for us. We’ve tasted that fruit time and again. The first time it tasted like life-giving food and we forgot the source of true nourishment. The first time our new wisdom about right and wrong brought only shame and we forgot it was God’s wisdom. The first time it was beautiful and delicious by itself and we forgot what beauty truly signifies. Forgetting whence we came, and where we were, and what things ultimately signify, we found ourselves left with only a greater hunger, a shameful self-consciousness, and a beauty that was only a reflection of ourselves. Over time, however, with much pain and sacrifice, we have come to see that the fruit is forbidden only when we forget the God who placed it in the garden. Through many hard lessons, and repeated revelations through our fog, we have come to see the fruit as a sign of God’s loving nurture, God’s obliging tasks for us, and God’s beauty more glorious than a natural polish. So, we’ll take the fruit, and thank you for it.” “You’ll what?” says Satan. “This temptation will make you mine, not God’s!” “Oh, no,” you say. “My beloved showed me that a love willing to go to death for love’s sake transfigures temptations into testimonies to divinity. Your trials are our spiritual exercises. Your temptations lead to our freedom. Your fruit’s alluring beauty reflects God’s glory. Share your fruit with us, it is so beautiful.” “Damn!” cries Satan. “Come with us,” say you and your beloved in unison.
Lent’s lesson is that God’s redeeming power is so great that even the fiercest evil forces can be transfigured to reflect God’s glory in justice and mercy. Good things can be transfigured to reveal God when we see them in the context of our approach to God. Bad things can be transfigured the same way. But it is so much harder to engage God with bad things than good things that we need the sweat of Lent to work things through. The temptations of grandiose fantasies of power, of obsessive demands to be loved, and of passions for dominance fueled by self-hate, are fiendishly difficult to transfigure into humility and love before our divine beloved. With the companionship of Jesus, however, our Lenten discipline can do that work. I invite you into that grand transfiguration in which the world is made holy.