With Ash Wednesday behind us and Jerusalem before us we are pilgrims once more. The traditions of the Church have nudged us out of places of comfort and put us on yet another journey to Jerusalem in hopes of learning and experiencing more of what it means to follow Jesus.
The irony of Lent is that it is Christianity’s most extended moveable feast. The irony is that Lent is a season of fasting, not feasting. Still, the term applies. In the history of Christianity a moveable feast is any observation that is not tied to the calendar but moves here and there according to other impulses. Easter–the goal of our Lenten journey–is the central moveable feast. Each year it falls on a different date on the calendar (like Passover, established by the lunar cycle). From Easter all other moveable feasts are calculated.
A gift of Lent is that it reminds us that discipleship is about moving, pressing forward, leaving behind the old and straining toward the new.
If we trace our spiritual lineage we discover that our ancient ancestors also were pilgrims. Deuteronomy 26.5 confesses, “A wandering Aramean was my father” (NRSV: ancestor). The sentence concludes, “He went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous.” Narrowly, the reference is to Jacob; broadly it must include Abraham and Sarah, and Isaac and Rebekah since they, too, had sojourns in Egypt.
Centuries later Moses of Deuteronomy implores the descendants of Abraham and Sarah to recall their wandering beginnings “when you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you” (Deut 26.1). At the time of making offerings, Moses says, the people should confess, “A wandering Aramean was my father….” Tucked away in the hem of the challenge to remember their pilgrim past is a substantial reason for doing so. The passage concludes, “Then you, together with the Levities and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house” (Deut 26.11). The “aliens” were those who could not trace their heritage back to Abraham and Sarah. What better way to be reminded of a wandering past than to have aliens as part of your community!
On the first Sunday of Lent the psalmist reminds us that the most moveable of feasts is to “abide in the shadow of the Almighty” (Ps 91.1). If God is “my refuge and my fortress … in whom I trust” (91.2), then God is on pilgrimage with us. The confidence of the psalmist nearly is boundless. The poet announces assurance that “no evil shall befall you/no scourge come near your tent/For he will command his angels concerning you/to guard you in all your ways/On their hands they will bear you up / so that you will not dash your foot against a stone” (91.10-11).
The epistle echoes the irony of Moses of Deuteronomy. If “the aliens who reside among you … celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house” (Deut 26.11), then we understand how the Apostle could say “there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him” (Rom 10.12).
The broader context of Romans 9–11 is the prickly question of the relationship between Judaism and the Gentile followers of Jesus. Christians largely are Gentiles. The Apostle acknowledges that the Gentiles are “the aliens who reside among you” from Deuteronomy 26. Along the Lenten path we are reminded that Christians are late-comers to the promises God made to Abraham and Sarah. Too, we are reminded that being a late-comer does not mean we are “second class.” There is a subtle twist, too. Paul’s point is that his Roman audience–a Gentile church–can no more reject the Jews than the Jews can reject them because “the same Lord is Lord of all.”
The Gospel on the first Sunday of Lent moves us into the wilderness with Jesus before his ministry commences. The opening sentence holds promise for us as we continue our journey. Luke writes that “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit … was led by the Spirit in the wilderness” (Luke 4.1). For some reason we have come to understand temptation as a negative. We assume that temptation will expose our frailty. In the wilderness the temptations of Jesus exposed his faith and reliance upon God. Yes, he was tempted, but it seems that he was tempted to respond to God’s Spirit. Could it be so for us, too?
The Gospel portrays Jesus in the wilderness “in the shadow of the Almighty” (Ps 91.1). In each instance of temptation Jesus deflects the immediate and temporary in favor of the ultimate and enduring. He passes on turning stones to bread in favor of more substantial nourishment (Luke 4.4). He passes on power in favor of worship of God (4.8). And when faced with the promise of Psalm 91, “On their hands they will bear you up / so that you will not dash your foot against a stone” (vv. 10-11) as a reason to cast himself from the pinnacle of the Temple Jesus responds, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test” (Luke 4.12).
It is Lent. We are on the move, again. Like Jesus we are led into this wilderness by the Spirit. Let us go with gladness, eager to be transformed by the promises of the prophet, the psalm, the epistle, and the Gospel.
Richard F. Wilson is Columbus Roberts Professor of Theology and Chair of the Roberts Department of Christianity at Mercer University in Macon, Ga.
Columbus Roberts professor of theology and chair of the Columbus Roberts Department of Religion in the college of liberal arts at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia.