Written by: Br. Brian Poulin
March 6, 2021 – Saturday of the Second Week of Lent
We’re about one year into the COVID-19 pandemic that has had pretty much the whole world in various degrees of lockdown and social distancing since Lent 2020. Many of us have never before experienced such an extended period of time in which our entire reality is reshaped by heightened danger and unpleasant but necessary safety precautions. Yet some of us have, whether due to situations of inescapable abuse, entrenched violence, intractable poverty, or forced displacement. As far as enduring hardships go, this pandemic is more notable for the universal extent of its spread, rather than the length of its duration. Knock on wood.
During Lent, we often focus on Jesus’ 40 days in the desert, but we can also remember the 40 years that the Israelites spend on their desert pilgrimage from enslavement in Egypt to an ancestral homeland they remembered only from legend. Let’s forget that numbers in the Bible are often symbolic and imagine that truly was a journey of four decades. At this point, we would only be 2.5% of the way through the trip.
How could we have resisted despair if we had known last April that pandemic-world would last not only through spring 2020 but also reach all the way into the next? Yet here we are. In spite of the loved ones we have lost and the various sufferings we have endured, we have somehow come this far by God’s grace. While we await the end of this affliction, I’m sure that many of us can recount numerous blessings we have received along the way. Some of us have deepened important relationships or learned new hobbies. Many of us have learned to do more with less and developed creative solutions that will better connect people even once we are again able to travel and gather freely. We have all had the chance to reevaluate our priorities. Even during this trial, God has blessed us.
One of my favorite passages of scripture is Deuteronomy 29: 4, in which Moses addresses the Israelites toward the end of their desert ordeal, reminding them that the whole time they were complaining about their own difficulties, God was caring for them in subtle but unmistakable ways: through 40 years of wandering, neither their shoes nor their clothing ever fell apart. No, they could not eat their preferred foods, but instead they were bestowed miraculous manna from heaven. When they were stripped of the ability to rely on their own resources, they learned to rely solely on God. In all of salvation history, was a nation ever so close to God as the Hebrew people were during that time in the desert?
It is clearer than ever to me that our Lenten practices—whatever they might be—are not meant to make us miserable. We should be about alleviating misery rather than adding to it. Suffering can only be justified when it is at the service of something greater. Even if one takes on an ascetic discipline, the proper benefit lies not primarily in stripping away comfort and pleasure but rather in creating the opportunity to find joy in God. Removing the customary delights that capture our attention so easily can provide an opportunity to rediscover what is most truly essential in our lives or to find God taking care of things that we thought we had to take care of for ourselves. Rather than Lenten fasting, I can now appreciate the validity of Lenten feasting, as long as it involves mindfully rejoicing in God’s bounty rather than merely indulging in one’s particular fancies.
We live in a world inundated with bad theology, and we’d be greatly helped if we spent some time forgetting about who we’ve been told Jesus is and instead encounter him for ourselves in the Gospel. He can certainly be hard to understand at times and can seem harsh and aloof. But he also celebrates and mourns, he laughs and riddles. He occasionally vents his anger but more frequently acts in compassionate mercy, without regard to what might be considered proper or respectable. He only seems to judge those who pass judgment on others and never ever metes out punishment, even though he does sometimes warn people for their own good (most often through parables that beg interpretation). He doesn’t harm others and seeks to either prevent or undo the harm that his disciples would visit upon others.
If I might make a small advertisement, I urge you to consider watching The Chosen, a series that for all its strengths and limitations offers what I consider to be the most authentic and compelling portrayal of Jesus I have ever seen filmed. By all means, engage in Lenten fasting, prayer, and almsgiving, especially if you can do so with the right disposition and in a way that positively affects others. But if you would like to feast instead of or in addition to your customary disciplines, this viewing could make a nice option.
Happy Lent! And no, that shouldn’t be a contradiction in terms.
This week I’m cheating by combining the “ear candy” and “brain food” into one. I had meant this to be an annual Lenten tradition—using this offering in particular I mean—but I guess there must have been something distracting me in 2020? No idea what that might have been… anyway, I invite you to watch the video and listen to the lyrics at the link below as a way of reflecting on the grace-filled blessings present in the desert that accompany the hardships on which we so often dwell.
Ear Candy & Brain Food: Animation – “40” by Si Smith; Music – “How He Loves” by John Mark McMillan
Come back on the first Saturday of next month for a new post!