Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Lent and The Winter of Our Discontent

There's a Bengalese proverb which says, "The heron's a saint when there are no fish in sight."

As we begin the liturgical season of Lent (lengten = springtime) tomorrow, Ash Wednesday, that proverb could serve as a commentary on our human condition and on our propensity to temptation, to testing: a subject which the Church constantly holds before us during this time.  As I think about the proverb and about the human condition today, a phrase from Shakespeare keeps ringing in my ears: "...the winter of our discontent".  What more easily frustrates and discontents us than our constant bombardment with temptation, and even more, our willingness so often to give in?

The writer of the Book of Genesis (2:4b-9; 15-17; 25-3:7) reflects on all this.  Rather than giving us a chronicle of how evil began, the writer tells a story about relationships: good relationships which go sour because of temptation and selfish choices.  God creates man, and eventually woman, in the fullness of life: breathes into them the breath of life, and surrounds them with every created and uncreated good, as depicted by the garden symbol.  God makes them aware of only one thing with which God will not, cannot, endow them: God's own divinity, symbolized in the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  And that becomes the "fish in sight" which tempts the "heron".

Rather than really listening to God, which is what obedience means in its root, humankind figures it can improve on the Creator's creation to the point where humans can cross over the boundary which was set.  Eve's reply to the serpent's question is a classic human misquoting of what "God says".  By going beyond what God actually says, the human being attempts to blunt the force of God's original radical command.  That's a constant temptation for all of us: to dictate to others what God "really" says or "really" means, thereby allowing ourselves to skirt God's actual will for us. Or to absolve ourselves from the great effort it takes to discern God's will, ambiguous as that often is.

Further, the woman and man just can't resist the allure of complete satisfaction, nor can they resist the attraction of all that's desirable and compelling to the human spirit, nor the insatiable thirst to know...everything.  Impossible dreams for people to whom God had already given everything that a human being would ever need to live fully!  "...She took of its fruit and ate; and...her husband who was with her...ate.  Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew they were naked..."  Thus begins "the winter of our discontent", our life-journey through temptation and vulnerability.

Lent reminds us of all this, but, thank God, it also reminds us that this wasn't the end of the story.  It reminds us that "as by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be made right [with God]."  Christians believe that Jesus, a human being like us, "tempted but without sin", yet also a divine being, the Son of God, makes it possible for humans once again to recapture the original blessing.  The Church will celebrate that reality in Holy Week and Easter. 

But it's a hard-won reality.  "The winter of our discontent" is a life-long memorial and warning of what cost the human race has paid for things to be set right again, of the cost which Jesus paid in giving his human life, and of the cost which each of his followers must pay as they struggle to be reborn from above.  At the end of the Lenten disciplines may we be able to pray the Easter collect with full awareness of what it means:

"...Grant us so to die daily to sin, that we may evermore 
live with him in the joy of his resurrection."

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