I’ve often thought the word ‘Lent’ was a strange name for such an important season in the Christian church. Why would anything be named after pocket fuzz?
In Spanish it makes more sense. The word ‘Lent’ in Spanish is called ‘La cuaresma.” The word ‘cuaresma’ comes from the word ‘cuarenta’ which is the number forty in Spanish. Since Lent lasts forty days—naming it after the word ‘forty’ makes more sense, to me, than naming it after ‘pocket fuzz.’ I'm probably off here. Lent probably has some deep meaning in Greek or Hebrew.
Nevertheless, there was another ‘cuaresma’ that we often overlook—the 40 days Jesus spent fasting in the wilderness. The two bookends of Jesus’ ministry could be marked by these two cuaresmas—which were incredible acts of self-imposed sacrifice for a greater cause. The reason behind the sacrifice at the cross is the central message of Christianity. But what about the other bookend of his ministry—the self-imposed 40 day sacrifice in the wilderness? It barely gets a yawn.
Maybe one of the reasons we don’t imitate Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness is because if we were to not eat for 40 days, nearly all of us would drop dead and Christianity would have some major logistical challenges with continuing to exist. This is may be the same reason we don’t imitate the crucifixion either. We had to pick and choose how we would imitate Jesus. Instead of reenacting fasts and crucifixions, we chose bread and wine, which was probably for the best.
Instead, we kind of brush that forty day fast aside. It is more interesting to focus on the high drama between Jesus and the devil. We continue to do gravitate toward drama. Look at the news cycle. It is all about drama. The news centers on who blasted who and how so and so reacted, which is what we focus on in the beginning of the fourth chapter of Luke’s account. But what about the wilderness? The literally outdoors here? Is it significant when Luke writes, “The Spirit led him into the wilderness”? Is it significant that nearly every person who has started a major religion has not only come from the wilderness but has also practiced fasting and self-deprevation? Buddha fasted outside for 49 days. Muhammad stayed in a cave high on a mountain and set aside one month of fasting for him and his followers. Jesus fasted 40 days.
Luke clearly points out that Jesus “ate nothing” for forty days. Such a feat borders on fringes of human limitations. Living without food for that long of a period could have easily resulted in death. It isn’t surprising at all that while undergoing such extreme physical stress, he encountered his demons. If one reads this as a modern who ascribes to science, it is still psychologically feasible that one would experience hallucinations when submitted to such incredible stress. And this encounter with the devil, his demons, or his deep inner struggles, reveals something about him and ultimately ourselves.
One. Jesus would have been hungry and no doubt wanted food. He hears the words, “Turn these rocks into bread.” That seems like a perfectly normal thought from someone who is starving to death. But Jesus’ response to this is actually quit profound in such a material-based society as ours. Jesus says, “We do not live by bread alone.” The whole modern apparatus of our economy is about bread. Bread here could represent not only the meeting of our physical needs but also the desire to live physically comfortable every second of our existence. A starving man in the desert tells us, it’s not merely about the scramble to feed the belly. There is something we need that isn’t fed by material things.
While there may be a vague subconscious acknowledgment in our culture of what Jesus is saying here, mostly our society operates on the assumption that we are merely consumers hell bent on physical comfort. The word ‘hell bent’ may be overly dramatic, but I’ll leave it ‘hell bent’ because this collective drive for material comfort has had some pretty hellish consequences for the natural world.
Granted: all species try to manipulate their environments to suits their needs. For example, one time in the rain forest in Guatemala I saw ant colonies that were three feet high. Coming out of these colonies were roads filled with millions of ants. There was barely any vegetation within a twenty foot radius of the colonies. The ants had manipulated their environment in a way that suited their needs. And it was obvious that the rain forest had paid for it.
We do this on a much larger scale—a planet wide scale. And so it’s significant when Jesus, the most influential human of all time, says, there’s more to us than the mad scramble to indulge the needs and wants of the body. It’s interesting that unlike Muhammad, Jesus doesn’t say that we should fast like him. He must have seen fasting as his own personal pathway to spiritual growth. But he doesn’t turn it into a legalistic requirement for his followers. Nevertheless, we are left with his example and the space to consider what his example here in Luke means to us.
Next the devil offers Jesus power. In his self-imposed state of starvation it looks like he had visions of ego based power. Jesus resists this and says that his spirituality will not be about power. Rather it will be about serving God. He later defines what God is and what serving God means. God is love and serving God means serving others. So Jesus flips the whole paradigm of comfort and power on it’s back and says it’s not about physical comfort or power, but about spiritual formation and serving.
The last temptation of Jesus is a curious one. It is almost like a dare. “If you’re so great you can do anything and nothing will happen to you--then see if you're so great. Jesus is like, “Spirituality is real, but don’t test the laws of physics. The material world is also real.
We still operate in a physical world. It reminds me of a story my brother who lives near Fairfield once told me. In Fairfield there is the Maharishi Peace Palace. Fairfield is the Mecca of Transcendental Meditation. One day one of the students in the TM University, decided he could sit in the middle of the road in a state of deep meditation and that nothing would happen to him. Unfortunately, the forces of mass and velocity met the forces of spirituality and the former came out on top. The man was severely injured. I do believe the lesson here is deeper than what I'm saying here, but nevertheless the way we deal with the natural world is going on here.
On one hand we are not the sum total of its material parts. While we are subject to the material laws of the universe, there is more to the universe that the material. There isn’t a hard line between the two. Jesus is squarely centered in the physical wilderness and is simultaneously growing spiritually. And between the material and spiritual that are inter-related, we see a call to love and serve others.