You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know.
– T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets, “East Coker,” III, 142-144
The season of Lent is the oldest season in Christianity. It’s much older than other seasons and holidays like Christmas and goes back to 300 and something when we first find evidence of early Christians marking a season of 40 days in preparation for Easter.
The 40 day season has its roots in the story of the 40 days Jesus spent out in the wilderness after his baptism. It’s rather an amazing story that after his baptism when Jesus hears shouts from heaven proclaiming that he is in fact God’s beloved, that he high tails it out not to the local disco tech to celebrate but into the desert where he fasts for 40 days and 40 nights. The reasons for his fasting are never made clear, but perhaps the desire was simply to empty himself fully out so God could fill him fully up – every ounce and breath and sinew of him with God.
After those 40 days, when he’s at his worst – tired out, worn out, hot, sweaty and stinky, Satan shows up as a frightening mirage or a depressingly insistent interior voice and tries to get him to sell himself out for something less than what these past 40 days have been all about.
There’s lots of interesting takes on the meaning of the three temptations of Jesus in the desert but my favorite is Walter Wink’s insight that it all has to do with the greatest satanic temptation of all – the temptation to be someone other than ourselves.
What Satan offers to Jesus are not bad things. In fact, they are temptingly good things. Just the kind of things that everyone thought a good Messiah should have – power, might, the rule of empires. The Messiah who would free his people from oppression, restore God’s nation and reinstate God’s good honor. All these good Messiah-Savior kind of things, Satan offers to Jesus.
So, Jesus answers Satan, “No, no”… and finally fed up with the whole charade, with a good Jesus loses his temper moment, “Get behind me Satan!”
And so, Jesus walks out of the desert, not so much knowing who he is and what he will do as who he is not and what he will not do.
I have spent so much of the first half of my life building up a strong sense of who I am and what I am supposed to do. I have treasured certain aspects of my identity. I’ve woven them tight around me quite comfortably.
Now, in the second half of life, I’ve discovered that some of the pieces of my identity were not in fact mine but what I took on as someone else’s ideas of who they thought I ought to be and how I should behave. Some ways that I have walked through life before just don’t fit me anymore. It takes time, attention and a good share of grief I have learned to shed these pieces of my so-called identity, and clear a little room for God to work in me in the here and now.
Maybe none of our beloved identities are in fact so impermanent. Maybe, wherever we are in the journey of life, we too need to shed a bit of the “oh, that’s just the way I am!” notions that we cling to so we can move and mature our way more deeply into the wonder and unfolding surprise that is our life.
Many years ago I quit my job. In fact, it was the same job I happen to have now. I walked into my colleague Don’s office and announced I was going to move on. I had done what I could do, I was ready for something new, a fresh start. Don heard me out, and supported my decision. The next day, I came to work and had the best day I’d had in ages. I learned that I indeed had to leave something but it wasn’t my work. It was how I did my work, the identity I had taken on for how I was supposed to do it. When I let go of my old baggage of who I thought I was supposed to be, I could make room for a new way to be that fit me and my life.
Perhaps it’s some strength you never knew you had. Perhaps it’s some gifts that you never considered manifesting. Perhaps today is the day to put down what you just don’t need to be and cling to anymore and open yourself to the unfolding wonder of who you are created to be.