"Lent" comes from the Old Engish word for "lengthen," referring to the lengthening of days as we approach spring. As such, Lent is often referred to as the "springtime of the soul." After a year of loss and sacrifice, the Lenten theme is "Filled & Overflowing" - to be nourished by God and replenished in weariness.
I keep seeing that image of the pile of crashed cars, and semis and twisted metal on I-35 West from last week. It has become a fitting image for me of how this whole year has felt:
• Trying to manage something that is beyond us
• Everything going wrong
• Life suddenly changing and even disappearing
• Way too much death
The image of the tangle of cars on the highway mirrors the twisting of our own souls over the last 12 months, the loss of life, and of control and ease and peace. This is how we come to Lent. We are exhausted and discouraged – we just want to chuck it all out the window. But we need this Lent. We need the ashes, we need the dust, we need the wilderness—if for no other reason than to tell the truth about how awful we feel, how weary we are, how depleted our bodies are, how broken our hearts feel, and how much we need God.
The twisted events of this year have left us wandering in the wilderness, wondering how we can go on. How much longer? How much more difficulty? It is not just the pandemic—it is the protests and the experience of some of our citizens that their lives do not matter, are not valued, can be snuffed out by a knee on a neck, by under-funded schools, by neighborhoods that do not even have equal access to the internet much less to a life-saving vaccine.
It is the deeply divided politics and the feeling that we cannot even listen to someone with a different opinion or perspective, that justice does not matter, and that cancel culture is more important than relationships, than community, than the common good.
If that were not enough, we are recovering from a natural disaster with bitter cold, loss of power, and more loss of life. And while my home got down into the 40’s, at least I have a home when many do not. At least I could heat food on a gas stove and warm up when the heat came on a few hours at a time. Thank goodness for Gary Bowers and Nancy Slaughter where I got a hot shower today and where I will get warm bed tonight.
It has been a wilderness year that has twisted us up with grief and sadness, and depleted us as if we have not taken in sustenance for forty days. Is this how Jesus felt in the wilderness? So depleted and weary, so exhausted and troubled, so tired of death and ashes and dust he was ready to chuck it all out the window or better yet, throw it all back in God’s face?
We do not know in our story from Mark what the temptations were that Jesus faced in the wilderness, but they were bad enough to twist his soul, to tempt him to give up on God, to believe that nothing good was left. It was bad enough to tempt Jesus to trust evil, to think that wrong was right, to imagine that the devil had won. It was bad enough to prod Jesus into fear that the Holy Spirit who entered him at Baptism had now abandoned him in the wilderness. All of these lies are so easy to believe when we are in pain.
As his soul was being twisted to the breaking point, God intervened and brought Jesus relief. The report of that aid is brief – it is just six short words, but it gives us hope as we go through our wilderness time: “and the angels waited on him.”
In Scripture, angels usually reside in the heavenly realm. They only come to earth when God sends them with a specific message to share—like the angel Gabriel appearing to Mary and Zechariah, and the angels at the empty tomb. They communicate their message and return to heaven. But as Jesus recovers from his terrible time in the wilderness, God sends multiple angels, not with a message, but with a ministry. The angels minister to Jesus:
• they untwist his soul,
• they nourish him,
• they fill him with springs of living water,
• they soothe him with hope
• and the salve of the Spirit’s healing balm.
Jesus is not alone, he has never been alone, he will never be alone. The angels surround him and fill him with kindness, encouragement, nourishment, affirmation, community, healing, hope, and love. They fulfill the promise in Isaiah:
The LORD will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden.
The ministry of God’s angels moves Jesus from a parched wilderness of temptation to watered garden. That is what Lent is for us this year. Rather than focusing on our own efforts of sacrifice, giving up something, trying a new discipline of prayer and fasting, this Lent is a time to pause and cry out that God might send His angels to minister to us.
This season, God invites us to depend on his angels that we might be filled up and overflowing, trusting that we are not alone, have never been alone and never will be alone. We will not be tempted by evil’s empty promises that twist the truth and make us believe we are alone and that death wins.
Jesus comes with his angels to surround us and fill us with kindness, encouragement, nourishment, affirmation, community, healing, hope, and love. Rather than looking to ourselves to do better, this season of Lent, we will look to the Lord to guide us continually, to satisfy our needs in parched places, to make our bones strong, so that we shall be like watered gardens.
In these watered gardens of being strengthened and loved and nourished by God, the springtime of the soul takes root in us: our faith grows deeper, our compassion spreads wider, our service blossoms in new directions, and the fragrance of our generosity blesses others. The spiritual practices of Lent flow easily from a rich soil that renews us to follow Jesus out of the wilderness into a life lived for and ministering to others.
• At what point(s) this year have you been ready to chuck life right out the window? How have you been able to express your anger and frustration at God?
• Have you ever felt permission to do this? Why or why not?
• If not, are you willing to try this Lent?
• Have you noticed the angels playing a different role in this passage than in other passages in the Gospels? Why does Mark include this detail, but not the details about the kinds of temptations like Matthew?
• If you had an angel visitation, what would you want from them?
• What would you need from Jesus this Lent to feel like a watered garden, filled and overflowing?
• Have you ever had a Lenten practice that focused not on sacrifice and sin, but rather on growth and the “springtime of the soul?” How does this emphasis feel to you this year?
• Imagine yourself feeling refreshed and renewed on Easter, April 4. What would need to happen for that to become real?
• Are there realistic actions you can take in that direction to nurture body and soul with God’s help?