Wednesday we were marked with Ash and we began the pilgrimage that is Lent on our way to Resurrection. In this season we find ourselves somewhere between
- Dust and water;
- Ash and oil;
- Sin and holiness;
- Death and life.
This season of Lent can seem to be a season of cant's:
- Can’t say the “A” word during the liturgy.
- Can’t eat delicious things like chocolate.
- In the traditional way of taking on acts of discipline and self denial—can’t eat meat on all the weekdays in Lent rather than just Fridays in Lent. (Sometimes people ask, “Isn’t that an old-fashioned Catholic thing?” and I answer, “Yes it is, and look at p. 17 of your Prayer Book.”)
And it’s also the season in which we are encouraged to take on an extra share of spiritual disciplines like extra prayer, spiritual reading of scripture and other spiritual writing, increased alms giving, and increased devotions like stations of the cross.
So, one could think that Lent is a season about giving up the material in exchange for the spiritual.
But is that what we hear this morning?
After Jesus is baptized, he is driven by the Holy Spirit into the desert to be tested by Satan. And angels wait on him. The Holy Spirit. Satan. Angels. Jesus is surrounded by spirits.
And in the First letter of Peter we hear that Christ, raised from the dead by the Spirit, made a proclamation to the imprisoned spirits, and is now at the right hand of his Father in heaven, with angels, authorities, and powers subject to him. This isn’t material vs. spiritual. It’s Spirit vs. spirit.
We’ve inherited the idea that the material and the spiritual are radically separate—even mutually exclusive. But that has not been the traditional teaching of the Church. The Church has taught that the created world is like a spectrum of material and spiritual, some of which is readily available to our senses and some of which is not (maybe because of the Fall).
As we know from experience in the Sanctus when we join our voices with angels and archangels, the spiritual powers are all around us, even in this room right now, even if we can’t see or hear or touch them.
These texts we hear this morning and others in Scripture describe many kinds of powers and spirits in this world, and some of them want to draw us away from God. And though we can’t see or hear or touch them, they do produce effects on the world that we can observe.
I'm not talking about things like haunted houses. I think we see the effects of the fallen spirits most often in more subtle and far reaching ways like
- wealthy nations that think some percentage of homelessness and hunger is worth their wealth;
- an obsession with guns and gun violence;
- terrorism... wars… racism;
- the Body of Christ broken into different denominations.
All of these and more are evidence of fallen spiritual powers around us. All are evidence of a deep spiritual disorder in which we participate. And our willingness to think these things are inevitable facts of life—as just the way things are—show us how deep this spiritual disorder goes.
Lent is primarily a preparation for baptism and baptism frees us from domination by these other spirits by filling us with the Holy Spirit who replaces all the false lords, the fallen spirits, who try to claim us.
But baptism does not free us from temptation. Baptism does not take us out of this world, out of the influence of the fallen spirits. In fact, the Holy Spirit drives us into the desert—into that place that is dust and ash and sin and death—in order to do battle with the fallen spirits there, but also to be supported by angels.
Just like there were for Jesus, for us, too, there are temptations after Baptism, and temptations even greater than those before baptism because they are temptations to leave the Holy Spirit and return to domination by the other spirits.
I don't know why we are tempted to return to our old rulers, to those other spirits with their version of the world—the wicked world before the flood or slavery in Egypt. To return to spirits and powers that we think we understand and that offer us the illusion of self-determination.
Maybe it’s because to be free of them, to be really free of them, makes us different—makes us stand out and seem strange in a world still bound to them, and it can be painful to rub up against that kind of resistance.
Because if we are really free of fallen spirits of the world, if we really leave them to drown in the waters of baptism like the wicked in the flood we won’t settle. We won’t settle for a version of the world that we know grieves God, because it will grieve us, too. We won’t go along with what the spirits and powers of the world say is inevitable. We will see things instead in a new way—a really new way.
We won’t settle for wars and greed and homelessness and hunger and a divided Church and violence as an answer to our problems, and we won’t settle for our own participation in any of these.
We will not see them as inevitable, but we will see them with the eyes of the Baptized, the eyes of the Church, which are the eyes of Christ, as aberrations, and we will share God’s grief at what has become of God’s Creation and we will long to let God work in us to change it and to make it new.
Wednesday we began the pilgrimage that is Lent—not so much a season of punishment and guilt, all about ashes and fasting—but rather a season of sweet longing for rich oils and God’s victory banquet. Not just about Good Friday, but also and especially about Easter.
Lent—that pilgrimage to Easter and to baptism—a time for converts to be prepared to be set free from the fallen powers of the world. And, for those already baptized, but who are falling back into bondage—who have fallen again under the sway of those powers—it is a chance to be made free again and be reclaimed by the Holy Spirit for Christ.
Throughout this season we find ourselves somewhere between
- Dust and water;
- Ash and oil;
- Sin and holiness;
- Death and life.
And we find ourselves, like Jesus, surrounded by spirits—some tempting us to fall back to dust, to ash, to sin and to death.
But we were made for water and oil and holiness and life—God’s own life—in the Holy Spirit.
And Christ didn’t just act in some distant past and then leave us. Baptism and Eucharist and the three days around which Holy Week and the whole life of the Church turns are not simply stylized pantomimes or stage versions to remind us what happened a couple of millennia ago. Christ is acting in these things to free us and the whole world—right here and right now.
And Lenten disciplines like prayer, fasting, the study of scripture, and Confession are ways we make room for God, allow ourselves to be opened up to the Holy Spirit.
The other spirits still try to claim us, but it is the Holy Spirit of God who lives in us, who drives us, turning Dust into living water and ash into oil, breaking the power of sin and death, and creating in us, and through us in the world, holiness and life.