With Lent starting this week, I’ve been pondering a characterization of the Jesus I could meet in Lenten practices and rituals and prayers. I am part of the generation where as children we took on Lent with a dramatic bravado. We were encouraged to ‘give up’ whatever we were fond of like sweets, favorite radio programs and later television programs. We boasted that we weren’t allowed meat on Fridays. Oh my the hardship! Never thinking we lived right on Lake Erie and fish was not only abundant but quite cheap and we ate it weekly all year!
We wore the ashes of Ash Wednesday like a red badge of courage, a sign that distinguished us from non-Catholic playmates riding the streetcars and busses home from school with us. We loved getting out of school earlier so we could attend the Stations of the Cross every Friday, hundreds of us huddled in soggy snowsuits emitting collective plumes of vaporized breaths in our chilly church as we shouted the response to every one of the fourteen meditative stations: “We adore Thee of Christ and we bless Thee because by Thy holy cross Thou hast redeemed the world.” Ah! To be Catholic and mournful! The treacle of a sorrowful, challenging Lent was great for a kid in pre-Vatican II rituals. I once prayed with all my little eight-year-old heart: “If I have to die Lord, let it be during Lent when I am holiest!”
Unfortunately, many Catholics have stopped right at that historical line of past Lenten practices. There is a place, absolutely, for denial, self-deprivation, and even suffering to be offered during Lent. This kneads the soul like dough for bread folding a compassionate God into the person who will rise on Easter as a better Christian, a more loving witness of the faith. But, we can go beyond the suffering Jesus and enter the spirit of the Jesus of Accompaniment.
Theologian Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ has written convincingly that God did not make or want Jesus to suffer; Jesus was to ‘accompany’, to enter into the sufferings of others. A loving, compassionate God could not create anyone to suffer. Without getting too far into theological weeds here, it is safe to say that redemption came about by Jesus teaching us how to redeem our fallen natures by accompanying others whose poverty and suffering reach out for love and healing and belief in God. As Abraham Heschel has said, “The exploitation of the poor to us is a misdemeanor; to God it is a disaster.”
All of this takes me to the Jesus I hope to meet this Lent. Maybe you will want to experience Him as well. First, there is nothing wrong with denying oneself. Many saints teach us that. And, Jesus, alone on a desert mountain, hungry and thirsty, missing family and friends, found this knowledge as surely as his tears fell on his open hands before taking the first steps in his ministry. And if you relate to the suffering Jesus, just remember the glories of Easter are eternal.
Second, the Jesus who waded through the packed hypocrisy of Pharisees and Romans, of unbelievers and tentative followers, the Jesus who resented the ostentation of religious fervor, the inflated fasting, the temple tokens dropped through the wrappings of the high priest’s cloaks, the Jesus who had no patience with the dramatizations, phylacteries, and the accouterments of power and religious law, this Jesus reflects the Jesus of Accompaniment, the One I yearn to meet. He is the Jesus who says, “When you pray, go to your room and pray.” He is the one who extols the generosity of the poor widow who gives to the Temple out of her want and not her excess. He chides the Pharisee who lifts his ego over the humble tax-collector asking for mercy in the Temple. And when the centurion asks him to cure his son, if He wills it, this is the Jesus who says tersely: “I do will it.” He wills all good for us. All of us. This is the Jesus I want to encounter this Lent.
So, my Jesus of this Lent challenges me to venture deeper into prayer – maybe from a mountain, or a desert, or my room. He is asking that I go with Him as He accompanies the poor and the lost I will encounter or, better yet, seek out. “It is the very character of God to be extravagant with love,” says Johnson, and “…this God does not need anyone to die in order to be merciful.” So this is the Jesus I hope to meet this Lent. One whose very life of love showed me how to redeem myself by lovingly accompanying others exactly the way He did.
(But I will still give up peanut bars and peanut M&M’S. Old traditions never die!)
Perhaps you could read Luke’s Gospel slowly and meditatively this Lent. It is the Gospel being used for this cycle of Lenten scriptures. Keep a journal of what speaks to you as you read.
After a few days, early in Lent, decide which Jesus you want to get to know better: the Jesus of suffering or the Jesus of Accompaniment? Ask for the grace to know Him better as you explore the depths of this call.
For reference: Creation and the Cross by Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ