This past Monday, I began the week with the miserable bug that had moved in over the weekend. After going to the doctor’s office, I picked up my prescriptions and then went home. While driving around town, I had the radio on and heard the big headline taking up Monday morning news. When I got home, I told Kerry the big headline of the week. “Honey, the Pope just resigned.”
Kerry said, “Honestly, Jerrod, what sort of medicine did they give you?”
Monday, we found out how quickly the first papal resignation in centuries can melt the Internet. Everywhere online, the unexpected news flooded the home page of blogs and news sites. The morning talk shows found themselves with a curve ball of a media story just hitting the beginning of the news cycle. I can imagine the Today Show producers likely started scrambling camera crews to chase down Cardinal Dolan for a reaction quote!
As for the newsmaker himself Benedict XVI made his announcement at an already scheduled meeting to talk about canonizing new saints. The church leaders gathered were shocked to hear this news added onto the agenda without warning. Without much fanfare, Benedict read a statement with a low-key rationale for stepping down by month’s end, noting his physical infirmities outpaced the demands of a literally global ministry required of his position. Benedict observed,
in today's world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the barque of Saint Peter [an old term for “ship”, an image of the Church] and proclaim the gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.
As I read the transcript of his resignation, I thought the Pope was being refreshingly truthful about human limitations. Each of us, including those who are called by God to lives of ordained ministry, have our capacities and full vitality only for a season. Some of us age and weather life at a different pace than others. We know the creaks and cricks of our bodies, reminding us that our facilities change, our speed and agility declines and life in general can take many unexpected turns, sometimes for the best and often for the worst. Being human is not for the faint of heart, and even the Pope had to weigh his papal calling with his body’s ability to carry on.
The Pope’s announcement came during the same week Christianity began the Lenten season. Lent is the forty-day period prior to Easter that calls us to be more focused on how we live out our lives faithfully before God. Lent brings us into the heaviness of the story of Jesus, considering the cross Jesus calls us to bear just as surely as we read reverently the story of the Passion of Christ crucified.
The greater culture treats Lent like it does Advent’s season preceding Christmas. Christmas and Easter become economic boosts for toys, cards, and chocolate, yet the tradition itself says both times, “Christians: Wait! Prepare! Pray!”
Forty days seems an eternity in the fast-paced world we live in. Truthfully, such a religious season is more desperately needed because of this world we live in. Putting the brakes on with all manner of demands and deadlines upon ourselves seems nigh impossible, yet have you considered the benefit of doing so? Lent aims to make us better disciples of Jesus, so that by the time Easter is celebrated, we have made progress (in whatever way or capacity we are able to do so) to move God move to the forefront of our lives.
Lent is often known as a time for “giving things up”. One venerable tradition is well beloved by the good folks at Lil Britain who look forward to Fridays during Lent. Some Christians bid adieu to friends on Facebook until Easter, a fasting from “social media”. Others open up their pocket books or their schedules to support community needs through funds or volunteerism. Such practices that require us to let something go that we think we cannot live without actually turns into a practice in saying “no” to self and “yes” to God, surely well in line with Jesus’ call to discipleship! Time is indeed money, yet living life more faithfully is “priceless”.
Meanwhile back at the Vatican (I’ve always wanted to say that in a sermon), the Catholic world heard its leader offer another wise word:
I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only with words and deeds, but no less with prayer and suffering.
I found Benedict’s remarks here most earnest. In making a decision so rarely made among the centuries-long list of Popes, Benedict offers a cautionary word about the power he found himself entrusted at his election in 2005. He understands that his words and deeds, usually the way we calculate whatever measure we hold in respect and authority for persons in high places, are accompanied by prayer and suffering.
There is no greater humility than being in prayer before God, as it reminds the one praying that we cannot go through life on our own. Suffering also grounds Christians in the reality of the world as it is and the will we have for living out the “against the grain of the world” type teachings of the gospel. While Benedict weathered considerable challenges and criticism during his papacy, he offered a humble note befitting of his choice of papal name, recalling the other greats named Benedict, a pope as well as the monk whose followers (Benedictines) continue traditions grounded in simplicity and prayer.
I note a similar wisdom offered by Roger Williams, the “first” Baptist in the United States. Back in the 17th-century, as Baptists began to emerge in Europe, their beliefs and teachings began to work in the minds of these upstart colonists in America. Roger Williams founded the “first” Baptist church in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1638, part of his personal odyssey of living a contrary-minded faith.
When he arrived in America in 1630, Williams was a controversial figure, aggravating the Puritan colonial government to the point that within six years, he was banished from Massachusetts. To avoid deportment to England where he was equally unwelcome, Williams set off in the dead of winter 1636 for the wilderness.
Recently, I came across a quote taken from Williams’ writings about his banishment from the Bay Colony. After spending some of that first winter in an old hollow tree to sleep and get some protection from winter storms, Williams later set his reflections into verse form:
God makes a Path, provides a Guide,
And feeds in Wilderness!
His glorious name while breath remaines, O that I may confesse.
Lost many a time, I have had no Guide, No House, but Hollow Tree!
In stormy Winter night no Fire, no Food, no Company:
In him I have found a House, a Bed,
A Table, a Company:
No Cup so bitter, but’s made sweet. When God shall Sweet’ning be.
(Edwin Gaustad, Liberty of Conscience, Eerdmans, 1991; current edition, Judson, 1999).
Such determination to follow Christ comes only after the words and deeds have been grounded in the actual experience of living faithfully to God through prayer and suffering. Lent opens the door for a forty-day exploration of such concepts with the hope that like all practices, they become habits or more likely to become engrained in our ways of thinking and acting. Taking the time to let Lent’s ancient patterns and practices of self-examination, humility, prayer, restraint, and fasting allow us to open our hearts to the possibilities we might not otherwise explore while rushing through the hubbub of life or letting the competing voices of the world drown out the calm and steady voice of Jesus calling out to the flock.
It’s no wonder that the cycle of scripture readings take the same story from the gospels as Lent begins. All three lectionary cycles give us “the wilderness temptations”. Each of the three gospel writers tells a slightly different story, yet the image is much the same. Jesus is affirmed greatly and grandly as the Son of God, the Christ/Messiah long promised, yet even after he’s still soaking wet from his baptism, the Spirit brings him out to the wilderness, the untamed, the lonely space where he is left for forty days and forty nights.
The old tempter himself turns up and offers the treasures of the world. “Be this way and live it up!” echoes each time a temptation is presented. Yet Jesus says “No” and turns away with great resolve.
Jesus, looking sun burned and dusty, parched and lean from a disciplined denial, sits out there in the wilderness. We usually marvel at the Tempter’s great offerings, for deep down, we know how such things tempt us with offers to be great and to live above the rest of the crowd clamoring for worldly fame and pride of place. Yet we know there’s something greater than all of this in the form of Jesus, who shall take us through the wilderness, through the world, and even death by way of the cross.
Will you join him on this journey?