Lent 1

Readings: Genesis 9 8-17; Psalm 25, 1-9; 1 Peter, 3. 18-end; Mark 1 9-15
Hymns: 526 when Jesus came to Jordan; 373 Help us O Lord to learn; 362; Forgive us our sins; 123; Jesus lover of my soul

These readings concern God’s covenant, or set of promises between two parties commonly of unequal rank: God and all people in Genesis, and God and God and the baptised in Mark and 1 Peter. But where, you might ask, is Satan? On this First Sunday of Lent, we expect more than half a line!
Lest you pine in this year of Mark, I’ll offer Milton’s Devils in his ‘Paradise Regained, on the Temptations of Christ,’ in which Adam’s expulsion from Paradise was recovered ‘by one man’s firm obedience fully tried through all temptation with the tempter foiled in all his wiles, defeated and repulsed and Eden raised in the waste wilderness.’ Put plainly, by resisting the Devil, Jesus enabled humans to regain Paradise, living and dying at one with God, in an Eden raised on earth, or the Palatinate. God incarnate, Spirit-filled, Jesus acted for us under God, our God who covenanted with all people after the Flood never wilfully to destroy us again, and in all humility kept tabs on his promise by means of the rainbow, which below the clouds was a visible reminder to us, and above to God.
Milton’s Devils, persistently trying to destroy Jesus and us, are dangerously ordinary chaps, not red-clad horned pantomime jokes. His first is an ‘aged old man in rural weeds,’ vaguely gathering wood or finding a lost sheep: his second is equally undevil-like- ‘not rustic but seemly clad, as one in city or court palace bred’- while the banal third has an oily voice oozing with pride and greed. He ends his at times somewhat doggerel like 2000 line poem in triumph: ‘A fairer paradise is founded now…and Jesus, unobserved, home to his mother’s house private returned.’ Lovely! Jesus is baptised and named God’s Child, goes to the desert, which Milton has two disciples plus the feisty Mary search for forty days, after which he starts his ministry. But first, home to mum!
Why that time out? Because reconciling past memories and future hopes is part of living in the present for that future: his time out gave him strength, as Lent can do for us. Yet Mark’s Jesus didn’t actually choose to go, but was dispatched to the desert by the Spirit, equally with Jesus part of God, that Spirit which, far from resting ‘on’ Jesus at Baptism, as this translation says, went into Jesus, just as Christ is in us.
Before Jesus entered the contemplative silence of the desert, he didn’t say ‘I’m useless, so I’ll skulk off into the desert.’ Nor did he hear that from God after baptism, but rather: ‘You are my Son in whom I am well pleased.’ Affirmed as a worthy child of his parent and protected by his Father, he resisted easy-living offers, and started proclaiming and performing the Word, to our benefit. Does God’s Grace imparted in Baptism, his affirmation, protect us from the need to reflect on temptation and sin: can we give this pesky ‘examination and confession of sin’ a miss? Absolutely not! In asking for forgiveness, for ‘we have done those things which we ought not to have done, and have not done those things which we ought to have done,’ we pray again, and yet again, to be made new, more able to turn from our entrenched sins and failings. For one that means sharing bodies casually in the vain hope of self-affirmation: for another, manipulating a member of his family or friendship circle; for another, turning her back on justice; for another, failing to do what he is paid for; for another, not caring for herself through a warped sense that while others count, she doesn’t.
The list goes on: but we need to see all our failings with wisdom and humility, following the Psalmist’s instructions. Otherwise Lenten self-examination too easily cripples in a debilitating cycle of gruelling yet sometimes glamorous guilt. ‘I did that? That was so awful that even though I regret it and understand rationally I’m forgiven, I think I’ll beat myself up a little longer.’ Such maudlin self-indulgence is very common –probably most of us recognise it and I certainly do – but following the way of Christ there’s no excuse for it.
We are forgiven but also cleansed not, as Peter makes clear, as a depollution exercise but through our baptism and in our sharing the grace of God in the Eucharist, where the trickle of water added to the wine represents not only the comingled divinity and humanity of Christ, but also our first sacrament, baptism in which we were, and are made new.
The abstentions of Lent, like Ramadan which coalesced 200 days of early Christian fasting into 28 days, represent inner struggle (Arabic Jihad) with our self and our relationship to God. But whenever abstention becomes an end in itself, then keeping Lent becomes rules-righteousness, in which the symbol becomes the self-idolising prize of Law, or the blasphemous jihad of Islamist violence aimed at any ‘Other,’ rather than the pointer to the Oneness of God which is Love.
Our quiet confident performance of prayerful love in this slow springtime of Lent should prepare us for the blossom and harvest time of one who claims and accepts Christ, which is not quite the same as claiming a tin of beans at a church fete: it must have consequences in our lives. If we choose not to serve alcohol or eat cake, that must serve as a cue for thinking Lent: what does ‘Oh my God in you I trust’ of the Psalm mean to each of us? Are we willing, as we said in that same Psalm, to ‘to be led in God’s truth, and taught?’ Do we remember the everlasting Covenant’s rainbow reminder for us and for God? Yet as Lenten petals unfold, so should faith, which isn’t just one shape.
We may use Lenten rules as symbols for thinking beyond, struggling to understand a fragment of the clouds of unknowing and integrating that fragment into the way we live our lives. What better guide is there for Lent that of ‘Jesus, unobserved, home to his mother’s house private returned.’ Especially if we, as he, go forth from there, hands and heart strengthened for service, out into the world.

Lent 1

These readings concern God’s covenant, or set of promises between two parties commonly of unequal rank: God and all people in Genesis, and God and God and the baptised in Mark and 1 Peter. But where, you might ask, is Satan? On this First Sunday of Lent, we expect more than half a line!
Lest you pine in this year of Mark, I’ll offer Milton’s Devils in his ‘Paradise Regained, on the Temptations of Christ,’ in which Adam’s expulsion from Paradise was recovered ‘by one man’s firm obedience fully tried through all temptation with the tempter foiled in all his wiles, defeated and repulsed and Eden raised in the waste wilderness.’ Put plainly, by resisting the Devil, Jesus enabled humans to regain Paradise, living and dying at one with God, in an Eden raised on earth, or the Palatinate. God incarnate, Spirit-filled, Jesus acted for us under God, our God who covenanted with all people after the Flood never wilfully to destroy us again, and in all humility kept tabs on his promise by means of the rainbow, which below the clouds was a visible reminder to us, and above to God.
Milton’s Devils, persistently trying to destroy Jesus and us, are dangerously ordinary chaps, not red-clad horned pantomime jokes. His first is an ‘aged old man in rural weeds,’ vaguely gathering wood or finding a lost sheep: his second is equally undevil-like- ‘not rustic but seemly clad, as one in city or court palace bred’- while the banal third has an oily voice oozing with pride and greed. He ends his at times somewhat doggerel like 2000 line poem in triumph: ‘A fairer paradise is founded now…and Jesus, unobserved, home to his mother’s house private returned.’ Lovely! Jesus is baptised and named God’s Child, goes to the desert, which Milton has two disciples plus the feisty Mary search for forty days, after which he starts his ministry. But first, home to mum!
Why that time out? Because reconciling past memories and future hopes is part of living in the present for that future: his time out gave him strength, as Lent can do for us. Yet Mark’s Jesus didn’t actually choose to go, but was dispatched to the desert by the Spirit, equally with Jesus part of God, that Spirit which, far from resting ‘on’ Jesus at Baptism, as this translation says, went into Jesus, just as Christ is in us.
Before Jesus entered the contemplative silence of the desert, he didn’t say ‘I’m useless, so I’ll skulk off into the desert.’ Nor did he hear that from God after baptism, but rather: ‘You are my Son in whom I am well pleased.’ Affirmed as a worthy child of his parent and protected by his Father, he resisted easy-living offers, and started proclaiming and performing the Word, to our benefit. Does God’s Grace imparted in Baptism, his affirmation, protect us from the need to reflect on temptation and sin: can we give this pesky ‘examination and confession of sin’ a miss? Absolutely not! In asking for forgiveness, for ‘we have done those things which we ought not to have done, and have not done those things which we ought to have done,’ we pray again, and yet again, to be made new, more able to turn from our entrenched sins and failings. For one that means sharing bodies casually in the vain hope of self-affirmation: for another, manipulating a member of his family or friendship circle; for another, turning her back on justice; for another, failing to do what he is paid for; for another, not caring for herself through a warped sense that while others count, she doesn’t.
The list goes on: but we need to see all our failings with wisdom and humility, following the Psalmist’s instructions. Otherwise Lenten self-examination too easily cripples in a debilitating cycle of gruelling yet sometimes glamorous guilt. ‘I did that? That was so awful that even though I regret it and understand rationally I’m forgiven, I think I’ll beat myself up a little longer.’ Such maudlin self-indulgence is very common –probably most of us recognise it and I certainly do – but following the way of Christ there’s no excuse for it.
We are forgiven but also cleansed not, as Peter makes clear, as a depollution exercise but through our baptism and in our sharing the grace of God in the Eucharist, where the trickle of water added to the wine represents not only the comingled divinity and humanity of Christ, but also our first sacrament, baptism in which we were, and are made new.
The abstentions of Lent, like Ramadan which coalesced 200 days of early Christian fasting into 28 days, represent inner struggle (Arabic Jihad) with our self and our relationship to God. But whenever abstention becomes an end in itself, then keeping Lent becomes rules-righteousness, in which the symbol becomes the self-idolising prize of Law, or the blasphemous jihad of Islamist violence aimed at any ‘Other,’ rather than the pointer to the Oneness of God which is Love.
Our quiet confident performance of prayerful love in this slow springtime of Lent should prepare us for the blossom and harvest time of one who claims and accepts Christ, which is not quite the same as claiming a tin of beans at a church fete: it must have consequences in our lives. If we choose not to serve alcohol or eat cake, that must serve as a cue for thinking Lent: what does ‘Oh my God in you I trust’ of the Psalm mean to each of us? Are we willing, as we said in that same Psalm, to ‘to be led in God’s truth, and taught?’ Do we remember the everlasting Covenant’s rainbow reminder for us and for God? Yet as Lenten petals unfold, so should faith, which isn’t just one shape.
We may use Lenten rules as symbols for thinking beyond, struggling to understand a fragment of the clouds of unknowing and integrating that fragment into the way we live our lives. What better guide is there for Lent that of ‘Jesus, unobserved, home to his mother’s house private returned.’ Especially if we, as he, go forth from there, hands and heart strengthened for service, out into the world.

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