19 days in: This is about when I start to get restless. I begin to wonder if Lent is ever going to end.
A friend’s insight, spoken at our faith-sharing group this morning, helped crystallize the point for me. He noted how Jesus has spent his 40 days in the desert. ‘I don’t think I could do that,’ my friend said. And it’s true: Our Lenten fasts and meditations are relatively wimpy by comparison to what the Lord put himself through. Even so, our springtime sojourns can seem to drag on—the finish line, impossibly distant.
The reality is, we’re simply not inclined to put equal energy into habits of holiness as we are our patterns of sin. As I heard a homilist remark this week, ‘Jealousy and greed are not one day’s work.’
He was preaching on the readings we’d heard that day from Genesis and Matthew. The first reading (from Genesis 37) recounted how the brothers of Joseph had conspired against him:
They noticed him from a distance, and before he came up to them, they plotted to kill him. They said to one another: “Here comes that master dreamer! Come on, let us kill him and throw him into one of the cisterns here; we could say that a wild beast devoured him. We shall then see what comes of his dreams.”
This same deliberative mode of malice and evil intent was evident in the Gospel passage from Matthew 21, the parable of the vineyard owner seeking produce from his tenants:
Finally, he sent his son to them, thinking, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to one another, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and acquire his inheritance.’ They seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him.
Whether sins like jealousy and greed are the sticking point, or it’s other faults (lust, pride, sloth, gluttony) that bring us low—the pattern is often the same.
It’s typically not the fruit of a single day’s work.
More likely, we’ve invested some time and energy into nurturing the sin(s). Giving it room in our hearts—and perhaps even a bit of sustenance—so that it grows, and ultimately seems to become a part of who we are. We come to believe that (on some level at least) we are sinful to the core.
That’s the beauty of Lent, I think: We are given 40 days ‘in the desert’ because it’s going to take that long to recognize how deeply rooted our sinful habits have become. It takes that long, too, to recognize the lie—that we are sinful to the core.
At its best, Lent can be about developing different patterns of thinking and acting. It’s also about discovering a deeper truth at the heart of things—the truth that, as the theologian Elizabeth Johnson has observed, ‘Grace is more original than sin.’
Let us pause now…to recall that we are in the presence of the Holy One.