Lent: A Call to Enter God's New Realm of Love
The members of the committee should have been well aware that the season of Lent has to do with denial and, yes, discipline.
And that would certainly mean that the Gospel lesson for the first Sunday in Lent would be devoted intensely to those 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness, driven there after his baptism by the Spirit (the Holy one, we are to assume), to be "tempted by Satan," in the company of "wild beasts," and served by "angels" (Mark 1:12-13).
It follows that during this 40-day period the followers of Jesus ought annually to spend time fasting and doing penance and to avoid engaging in any festivals that give any hint of fun, "festivizing" and flourishing.
Even though the Lenten disciplines have eased over the centuries, the expectation of some sort of regular mortification still lingers – denying the body and mind of pleasures and passions and inflicting the mind and body to pain and punishment.
So was it simply an oversight, or, more serious, a lack of discipline for the lectionary committee to let something more than the story of Jesus' time of temptation and denial and discipline into the Gospel reading for the first Sunday in Lent?
How in the world do we make sense of the addition of Jesus' re-entry into Galilee and his "proclaiming the good news of God" (Mark 1:14) as something that applies to Lent?
What in the world would justify including, at the beginning of the period of Lenten discipline, a direct quotation from Jesus that seems so counter to what we normally expect of this observance in the church year?
"The time is fulfilled, and the dominion of God has come near; repent, and believe the good news" (Mark 1:15).
If it was either a mistake or a shortfall in discipline on the part of the lectionary committee, maybe churches across the world ought to drop that post-temptation part of the Gospel reading.
Unless the lectionary committee got it exactly right and the usual identification of Lent only with the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness is all wrong.
What if Lent is more complicated than we normally make it? Richer? Fuller? More in tune with the whole Gospel of Jesus Christ?
Sure, "denial" is a part of that whole Gospel. After all, Jesus did mention "repentance" as part of his proclamation of the good news.
Sure, "discipline" is a part of the whole Gospel. After all, Jesus did teach a "new way of life" that followed from belief in the good news.
But denial and discipline aren't what come first.
What comes first for Jesus is what God is doing. That's the primary announcement.
That affirmation is what sets the context and tone and consequences for anything that is to be denied and for everything that requires a new discipline.
To miss what God is doing – even with Jesus out there in the wilderness with Satan, the wild beasts and the angels – is to distort the Christian life, the life of discipleship, the life of Christian faith itself.
Missing what God is doing results in a Christianity that makes denial and discipline the central and total theme of the Gospel.
And we've got plenty of evidence from Christian history of what a dull and dour and life-denying faith that turns out to be. It makes our typical way of practicing Lent a year-round and lifetime routine.
But if what God is doing sets the terms of the Christian life, then things get much more complicated.
What is it, according to Jesus, that God is doing?
According to Jesus, God is coming very near with a new realm, a new dominion, a new community that has radically different characteristics than the one – or ones – with which we are familiar.
It is a new reality defined by love – by mutual care among all – that finds expression in compassion and healing, in justice and liberation, in reconciliation and peace.
The invitation of Jesus, coming out of the wilderness, is to enter into that new realm that God is creating so near to us – to enter into it with every dimension of our earthly lives: our personal and family life, our professional and social life, and even our civic and political life.
That makes the Christian life anything but simple: living that new life together in tension with the old life that is still around us.
But Lent, now understood more fully (as the lectionary committee rightly has it), gives us the opportunity to practice up on that Christian life with complications.
Practice will not make us perfect, but it might get us into a lively, meaningful and faith-filled routine.