A series of short meditations on the season’s tragicomedy
by Ken Sehested
Listen, smith [artisan] of the heavens, / what the poet asks. /
May softly come unto me / your mercy. / So I call on thee, /
for you have created me. . . . / Most we need thee. / Drive out, O king of suns, /
generous and great, / every human sorrow / from the city of the heart.
—“Heyr himna smiður” (“Hear, Heavenly Creator”), 12th century Icelandic poem,
put to music by Thorkell Sigurbjornsson, performed by Eivør Pálsdóttir
(click the “show more” button to see all the lyrics)
The traditional emphases of Lent—prayer, fasting and almsgiving—are intensely personal but never merely private. The depths of our hearts are connected with the depths of the world. The brokenness of our personal lives is intimately bound up with the rupture of the world itself. The joy we experience and the beauty we encounter reflects Creation’s original intent and promised fulfillment.
The logic of focused attention to personal repentance is not segregated holiness but public healing, of “the earth and all that dwell therein” (Psalm 24:1).
Such disciplines represent strategic interventions designed to confront gluttonous appetites—appetites that are seeded and cultivated in ways even the most kindly fail to see. The deadliest thing about privilege in the midst of privation is that we often are not even aware of it. Lent’s aim is to disabuse us of such innocence. Not to molest us (discomforting as it may be) but to befriend and amend us according to the Beloved Community’s covenant terms.
Though they require different strategies, the disarming of the heart and the disarming of the nations are organically connected.
Why have you forsaken us?
–“Forsaken,” The Many: Lament for Black Lives Lost” https://youtu.be/98yde4gMHCI
Some years ago the Brazilian pastor-theologian Odja Barros was our guest preacher. One of the things we encouraged her to speak about was where she sees God at work in the world.
“I have to confess,” she said in her sermon, “that the first thing that comes to mind is to say where I see God’s absence,” going on to name just a few of the places, in concrete detail, where breaking and bruising and battering dominate the landscape.
Deus absconditus. At the close of Holy Week’s Tenebrae service, we chant Eli Eli Lama Sabachthani! My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me!
With trepidation, we ask, has God gone AWOL?
Lent is the liturgical season where this seizure rises to the surface, and we—people of privilege—are asked to enter the wilderness from which, apparently, God has absconded: where things don’t work out, where movies lack happy endings, where minor-keyed hymns are sung, where the faces of children are not cherry-cheeked, downy-soft, delightfully adorable.
Mama put my guns in the ground / I can’t shoot them anymore /
That long black cloud is comin’ down / I feel I’m knockin’ on heaven’s door.
—“Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door,” Bob Dylan
Two years ago gun violence in the US became the leading cause of death among children and teens. Moreover, compared to other wealthy countries, the US accounts for 97% of such deaths, though our share of the population of such nations is 46%. “Combined, the eleven other peer countries account for only 153 of the total 4,510 firearm deaths for children ages 1-19 years in these nations in 2020, and the U.S. accounts for the remainder.”
The buyers, sellers and makers of AR-15s (in particular) are practitioners of child sacrifice to an gun-crazed idol—and should be named as such.
Part of Lent’s work is to break through our feigned innocence. As has been said, you shall know the truth and the truth will set you free; but first it may make you miserable. Any credible statement about God’s passionate love for the world must be spoken fully cognizant of the world’s passionate misery.
Those who sow with tears will reap with songs of joy.
Arguably, the church’s greatest liturgical weakness lies in its failure to provide space for lament. Often, when that happens, exclamations of adulation have all the authenticity of a singing television commercial.
“Keep on the sunny side of life” is a worthy reminder to lean into gratitude often taken for granted. Yet, sorrow is a constituent part of breathly life. When lament is ignored, its pain festers. When sorrow is silenced, we end up bleeding on those who did not hurt us.
The work of Lent is to privilege and affirm this neglected theological assertion: The purpose of God is framed, and the passion of God is fired, in the wounds of the world. That is to say, God bleeds. The recognition of God’s solidarity in life’s ache is essential if we are to endure the many shapes and shades of loss.
Intimacy with God implies and shapes non-conformed intimacy with the world, causing us to ask: who bleeds? And, whose profit depends on whose suffering?
Likewise, Lent’s discipling instruction is this: Instead of speaking for the silenced, it is more important to dig and dredge and excavate (and, sometimes, just get out of the way of) the voices of the silenced so they can speak for themselves.
Thus, Lent’s question for every congregation is this: How can we structure our worship to make space for lament?
There are many things that can only be seen through eyes that have cried.
—Archbishop Óscar Romero, assassinated in March 1980
by members of El Salvador’s military for outspoken
opposition to that country’s oppression of the poor
Scripture has a pronounced bias favoring “light” and opposing “darkness.” But there’s a minority report as well, where the Holy One is encountered in darkness.
The opening chapter of Genesis affirms that creation begins in darkness: “And there was evening and there was morning, the first day” (1:5). The promise to Abram, of descendants outnumbering the stars and of land (read security) is made only after a “deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him” (15:12). Isaac’s son, Jacob, has his name changed (read destiny) to “Israel” following an all-night wrestling match with an “angel” (32:24-32).
The Hebrew slaves’ escape from Pharaoh’s prison camp occurred at night; a little later, their covenant-making encounter with God comes from “the voice out of the darkness” (Ex. 20:21; Deut. 5:22). Indeed, “The LORD has said that he would reside in thick darkness” (1 Kings 8;12; 2 Chr. 6:1), and God “made darkness his covering around him” (Ps. 18:11). The repeated promise of good news is “to those who sat in darkness . . . for those who sat in the region and shadow of death” (Isa. 9:2; Mt. 4:16). To these faithful ones “the treasures of darkness” are promised (Isa. 45:3).
The Jesus story begins with angels appearing in the dead of night to roughneck shepherds. Royal astrologers from the East are alerted to divine announcement by stars visible only in darkness. Joseph and Mary, toting baby Jesus, flee the wrath of political authorities under cover of night.
On more than one occasion Jesus’ imprisoned followers received nighttime angelic visitation, either to free them (Act 5:19) or to bolster their courage for a coming trial (18:9). And the Apostle Paul’s initiation of his historic mission to Gentiles came on the heels of another night vision, of a “man from Macedonia pleading with him and saying, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us’” (16:9).
As modern seer Wendell Berry has written, “To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight, / and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings, / and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.”
O all you who walk by on the road, pay attention and see: /
if there be any sorrow like my sorrow. / Pay attention, all people,
and look at my sorrow: / if there be any sorrow like my sorrow.”
—Tomas Luis de Victoria, “Tenebrae Responsories – 14 – O vos omnes,”
performed by “The Sixteen”
There are several words from the oldest manuscripts of the Bible translated as “sin” in English, each with a nuanced meaning. If I were translating, my choice would be the word “cluelessness” in many of those renderings.
While there are some who willfully, menacingly commit fraud or violence, most of our sinning is unintentional: most often we are clueless, of the “they-know-not-what-they-do” variety. That’s why the work of repentance involves setting aside a measure of our privilege to experience the world through the eyes of those on the margins. This is where our most reliable theological education begins.
It has been rightly said: What you see depends on where you stand. Lent is the season when we consciously examine where we are standing to see if we may need to relocate.
Isn’t there anything you understand?
It’s from the ash heap God is seen.
Always! Always from the ashes.
—Archibald MacLeish in “J.B.,” a play based on the Book of Job
The relinquishment God asks of us—the desert into which Jesus guides us—is not a kind of spiritual immolation. Nor is the bent-kneed posture of Lent a form of groveling, as a beggar to a patron. The flame of the Spirit’s igniting presence does not scorch us. It makes us radiant. The ascetic practices of spiritual discipline are training for life lived unleashed from our shriveled little egos.
Lent’s labor may be disconcerting but it is never demeaning.
Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord of hosts.
Lenten labor entails seeking whose presence we must foster, which whereabouts we must locate, and what constellation will be our guide through dark nights of the soul, wandering trackless terrain, parched lands, and soggy bogs. This journey’s purpose is reeducation about the nature of power, key to learning about the character of love.
Love, of course, is more than a kindly feeling or a cordial acquaintance. Love involves an expenditure of assets: time; attention; inconvenience; affection that endures even through turbulence; material sustenance; a willingness to risk one’s own security, reputation, or social standing for those excluded from the table of plenty.
This is why saying we “love everybody” is an illusion, because our assets—time and attention and material capacity, etc.—are finite. There are only so many hours in the day. And the actual practice of compassion is more than mutual aid (worthy as that is). The distinction of loving relations, over against bartering, is generosity to those whose capacity to repay is in doubt (cf. Luke 6:32).
Lent’s labor is designed to train us in discerning questions of security. The world’s insistent claim is that you can never have enough: enough wealth, enough firepower, enough recognition, etc. Long before Karl Marx posited economics as the principal influence on human decision making, Jesus warned “You cannot love God and mammon” (Matt. 6:24), the latter being the word for wealth and power.
Those who would do good to another must do it in Minute Particulars.
—19th century British poet and painter William Blake
The opportunities for love’s bond, shaping the building blocks of the Beloved Community, come not by heroic relocation to some exotic other place. It begins close at hand, as paths cross in ordinary circumstances and physical proximity: within families (among the most severe testing ground), neighborhoods, workplaces and classrooms, places of worship. It’s possible, of course, a close encounter could lead to distant and strange places, maybe even highly public engagement with dramatic consequences. Those faithful in large things have surely been faithful in small ones.
Love’s aim, of course, is mutuality. Be wary of the charitable impulse that leads (however unintentionally) to dependency; or which requires public recognition; or demands gratitude from recipients. Indeed, those who lack material resources are often the ones who know more about the gratuitous work of the Spirit. Let them teach.
I only ask of God /
That I am not indifferent to the pain, /
That the dry death won’t find me /
Empty and alone without having done enough.
—English translation, “Solo le Pido a Dios,” performed by Mercedes
Sosa. Originally written and performed by Argentinian musician Leon
Gieco in 1978, this song is an anthem that was widely used throughout
the social and political hardships and civil wars across Latin America,
particularly in Argentina and Chile.
One group of characters in Thomas Klise’s futuristic novel, The Last Western, is a roving band of people with the quirky name of the “Servant Society of the Used, Abused and Utterly Screwed Up.” They function, I think, as a vivid metaphor of what the church’s mandate. Klise puts this self-description on their lips:
“The Servants will always choose the way of serving the poor, the lonely, the despised, the outcast, the miserable and the misfit. The mission of the servants is to prove to the unloved that they are not abandoned, not finally left alone. Hence, the natural home of the Servants is strife, misfortune, crisis, the falling apart of things. The Society cherishes failure, for it is in failure, in trouble, in the general breaking up of classes, stations, usual conditions, normal routines that human hearts are open to the light of God’s mercy.”
If someone asks you What would Jesus do? remind them that flipping over
tables and chasing them with a whip is within the realm of possibilities.
A commitment to kindliness, cordiality, and civility as the default position in all our encounters is virtuous. This should be a priority in the formation of our young. But they also should learn there are times when the peaceable are called upon to be troublers, when what passes for “peace” is actually a cover for villainy of every sort. Some tables, as Jesus demonstrated, need overturning.
Civility does not mean passivity in the face of injury. Bearing the servant’s towel to wash soiled feet (cf. John 13) does not mean being a doormat on which any may wipe their feet. Lent’s labor includes learning the difference between washing and wiping.
This is what we hope Lenten practices will do: Create “a creeping
discomfort about my confidence in the way I’ve always viewed the world.”
—Rick Steves, popular travel reporter, in
“Travel As a Political Act: How to Leave Your Baggage Behind”
Some years ago our congregation’s theme for Lent was “Set your plow deeper,” suggested by one of our members, a retired farmer. In years past, Marvin noted, most farmers plowed at the same depth every year. “The bottom of the plow compacts the soil beneath it, so that, over time, a thick crust forms, separating the plant roots from essential nutrients. To prevent this from happening, occasionally you need to set your plow deeper.”
This is the resolve of Lent, of allowing our lottery-winning fantasies to be altered, of facing a mortally-diseased world and proclaiming Heaven’s nevertheless, affirming that we are not, finally, left to the consequences of our calamitous choices. Another world is not only possible, it is promised, and its scouting party is already showing up in a neighborhood near you.
In the end, the fruition of Lent’s labor has less to do with what you give up than with what you take up* in the aftermath of Easter’s incendiary announcement. May the promise of the season’s eventual delight be sufficient to endure its demands.
I imagine Lent for you and for me as a great departure from the
greedy, anxious anti-neighborliness of our economy, a great departure
from our exclusionary politics that fears the other, a great departure
from self-indulgent consumerism that devours creation. And then an
arrival in a new neighborhood, because it is a gift to be simple, it is a
gift to be free; it is a gift to come down where we ought to be.
—Walter Brueggemann, “A Way Other Than Our Own: Devotions for Lent”
Knowing friends who were in harm’s way, I followed news of the 2020 Mexico City earthquake with alarm. One photo that caught my attention was of a man holding high a large sign that read “¡silencio!” Silence—calling onlookers to be quiet so the workers could hear the sound of any who might still be alive under the debris.
“¡Silencio!” is our Lenten watchword. The silence to which we are called is not that of candlelit hot tubs, champagne flutes in hand, Coltrane playing in the background—as delightful as that may be. Rather, silencio is practiced amid history’s rubble, as we listen for the faint cry of survivors from earth’s trauma and human atrocity.
Lent’s listening posture aligns us with God’s hearing, for the groans of the enslaved above the clamor of imperial pursuit, and the remembrance of covenant ties.
Holy Mother, where are you? / Tonight I feel broken in two. /
I’ve seen the stars fall from the sky. / Holy mother, can’t keep from crying.
/ Oh I need your help this time, / Get me through this lonely night. /
Tell me please which way to turn / To find myself again.
—“Holy Mother,” Eric Clapton, Luciano Pavarotti,
and the East London Gospel Choir
The Gospel account of Jesus “being led by the Spirit” into his wilderness ordeal, then sorely tempted by the Deceiver, thereafter ministered to by the angels, is the narrative point of departure for Lent’s observance. It’s important to note that Jesus did not undertake this severe trek without the blessing “from above” (i.e., from beyond human calculation and control) upon immersion in the Jordan River.
By the way, Lent’s penitential work is not a transaction: X amount of repentance for Y amount of forgiveness. There’s no getting right with God. There’s only getting soaked.
Never forget that desert excursions—where sustenance is scarce and threats are plentiful—must begin with a blessing. The ancient Hebrews’ trek from Egypt’s fleshpots began with a promise and was sustained by manna and water from a rock. The church’s Eucharistic elements are similar, and they, too, represent a warrant that the tomb’s claim will not be sustained.
Lent’s ashen imposition is prelude to Easter’s emancipation. But it is, to be sure, a bet-your-assets proposition which no investment banker would recommend.
In another play on Jesus’ admonition, You shall know the truth, and the truth will make you odd.**
“Wana Baraka” (“They have blessings”)
—traditional Swahili hymn from Kenya, Capetown Youth Choir
The Lent-Easter drama is more than a happy ending to a sad story. Easter’s exclamation is not simply the conclusion of Lent’s premises. Easter is a threat to the sponsors of repression and violence (along with their clientele). Easter is God’s insurgency against a world predicated on enmity and promulgated by fear. It is comedic, not because it’s funny but because it is astonishing, arriving seemingly out of nowhere.
Lent’s labor entails becoming conscious of the grandiosity of such fear; being drawn into a beatific vision powerful enough to undermine fear’s myth of redemptive violence; and enlistment in God’s insurrection, cheating death of its threat.
The rolled stone is our animation; the empty tomb, our mandate.
# # #
*Insight from Terrance Moran on Facebook.
**Author unknown, often misattributed to Flannery O’Connor.