One of the meanings of the word temptation which appears in our reading today is ‘testing’. But just what is being put to the test and why?
Notice how hunger, weariness and loneliness make it harder for him. Refusing to give in to pride and turn stones into bread is easy when you are not afraid of starving. Resisting the tendency to control when you’re being offered the world is easier if you don’t find yourself stripped of everything. Rejecting the fear of failure is not so difficult when you have others around you to love and affirm and you don’t feel like you are on your own. But hunger, weariness and loneliness make it all harder for anyone, even Jesus.
Yet this symbolic story of Matthew’s shows him prevailing and invites us to take a fresh perspective on the things that test us. For Lent is not really about spending forty days and nights miserably denying ourselves something that we love. Rather it is about finding ways to love more deeply. It is not so much about whatever practice we choose to adopt or not in this time as about what we would like to be different in our lives on Easter morning. So that’s a question to ponder – what would you like to be different on Easter Day, about how you are living your life and relating to God?
Clinging to any practice, however ‘holy’ is not going to effect real change, unless in fact we are willing to give it up. For Lent is more about learning to let go our need for control than it is about the practices themselves. It helps us to see the things we cling to and begin to let them go.
The desert fathers and mothers, who spent much time in the wilderness in the early centuries, understood this very well. From them we have this story translated by Benedicta Ward:
Abba Cassian related the following, ‘the holy Germanus and I went to Egypt to visit an old man. Because he offered us hospitality we asked him, ‘why do you not keep the rule of fasting, when you receive visiting brothers, as we have received it in Palestine?’ He replied, ‘Fating is always to hand but you I cannot have with me always. Furthermore, fasting is certainly a useful and necessary thing, but it depends on your choice, while the law of God lays it upon us to do the works of charity. Thus ,receiving Christ in you, I ought to serve you with all diligence, but when I have taken leave of you, I can resume the law of fasting again. For “can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them.” The monks’ host recognizes that in even the most devoted spiritual life God calls us let go of whatever stands in the way of hospitality to God, even when that is our very spiritual practice itself.
So, as we enter into this Lent, I encourage you to engage more deeply in whatever spiritual practices draw you towards God – prayer, study, works of charity and justice. But I also encourage you to be ready to let them go. For we are to cling not to the practices, but to what they point.
For Lent is not a test – in which we can score 20/20 or not. Lent is an invitation - An invitation to recognize the false things to which we cling, whether these are material or spiritual – and to let them go in order to offer more space, more hospitality to God in Godself.
In that spirit, I invite you now to share a couple of moments of silence together as we ponder that invitation and offer ourselves afresh to the one who calls us into new being. Amen.
by Penny Jones, Lent 1 Year A, 1 March 2020