It is now the liturgical season of Lent, with all the different meanings that may have for us. I grew up completely ignorant of church seasons, having been raised Methodist in small town Minnesota.
I think I first met this concept when I was in the fifth grade. On a Friday in the early Spring, my school, a consolidated 1st through 12th grades, held a sale of candy and baked goods. It was a field of potential delights as I contemplated what I could obtain with the two dimes my parents had given me for the occasion. Would I go for fudge or peanut-butter penuche or snickerdoodles?
But when I asked a friend what she was going to get, she shocked me by saying that she wasn’t going to get anything, because she had given up sweets for Lent. Now there was a new and appalling concept. When I found out how long Lent is, I was even more horrified, and hoped that this idea wouldn’t spread to Methodists.
Obviously as I grew up and had a broader experience of the world, I learned that Lent was a regularly occuring season, observed in most Christian churches; and I chose to participate in this ritual of giving-up-something.
By now, many of you may well have decided on the sacrifice of some small pleasure between now and the end of Holy Week. But I want to offer an alternative idea for Lent. What if we were to mark this time by exploring not what we can temporarily do without but what it is we really want?
In today’s Gospel lesson, the Greek word thelo occurs three times. It may be translated as ‘to desire’ or ‘to will’ or ‘to wish’. For example, it is reported to Jesus that Herod ‘wants’ to kill him. Jesus says that the history of Jerusalem shows a city that ‘wants’ to reject prophetic proclamation. And Jesus himself ‘longs’ to gather the Holy City as a mother hen gathers her chicks to protect them. So the concept of thelo ranges from a tyrant’s erratic wish, to a religious establishment’s self-protective politics, to a prophet’s anguished longing to reach those who need to be saved.
In the setting of this Gospel lesson, what would it mean for each of us to try to discover what we want? We live in a world where it is easy to want lots of things. Our culture constantly presents us with delights to catch our eyes and ears, beautiful things, the latest symbol of status and wealth. While we may laugh at some of the things we are invited to strive for, the sales job is often more subconsciously effective that we would like to acknowledge.
Were we laughing when we heard that some parents paid a half-million dollars or more to get their kid into Harvard? Obviously the power of their wanting was tremendous. You and I probably don’t reach those stratospheric heights. My own weakness is for fountain pens. I love the way they look, the flow with which they glide inky words onto smooth paper. I don’t indulge in a collector’s passion for these writing instruments, but I do have five of them. And while I have discovered that I can only write with one at a time, I confess that whenever the catalogue comes in the mail, it’s hard to throw it directly into the recycling.
The thing is that both Harvard and fountain pens are ephemeral, and the wanting of them is not going to take us much deeper into life’s meaning. In fact, it reminds me more of my mother’s story that when my I was about 2 years old and having a really oppositional day, mom finally asked in exasperation, “Heidi, what do you want?” To which I whined back, “I want what!” And it was true.
It often seems as though we strive after or accumulate things and accomplishments in that model of ‘wanting what’ until we have to rent storage lockers, have no more wall space or end up holding garage sales. Our lives fill up with the detritus of trying to fill some formless desire with objects of mere wanting.
When I challenge us to focus this Lent on what we really desire, I’m wondering if we can move – through reflection on scripture, through our prayers and the examination of our hearts – to find what might be big enough, deep enough to qualify as true longing.
Amid the levels of wanting presented in today’s Gospel reading, Jesus is talking of his own life-deep longing. He longs to gather his people into a community that protects them from the attack of evil that would destroy them. The image he uses is of a mother hen spreading her wings over her chicks. It is a very maternal image, but not sweet or passive.
In the words of Professor Angela Reed, “Hens tend to be fiercely protective of their chicks, sometimes even those chicks belonging to a neighboring hen. They naturally assume the responsibility of teaching the chicks to walk and then to eat and drink. Some hens are especially fierce. They will growl, shriek, puff out their feathers, and peck at anyone or anything that might intrude. [But] in spite of a hen’s efforts, chicks will not always obey. She may have a hard time getting them to follow her or to remain in close proximity.”
And, of course, this is also an image of vulnerable sacrifice. When the fox is bent on having the chicks, the hen, placing herself in the predator’s way, will be torn apart, ripped to shreds, her brood then scattering in all directions. Which is what actually will happen in Jerusalem with the crucifixion. The longing which Jesus expresses here is not a desire for his own death but for the consummation of God’s love extended to the whole creation.
In light of this, what are the deep desires which we might each find in ourselves if we focus in this Lenten time on that question: ‘what do I truly want?’ This is not about finding a possible martyrdom, but discovering a longing that can focus our lives on the path towards a true center and meaning. This is about moving beneath day-to-day fluctuations in interest or possibility to the deep stream flowing out of each of our lives into the very life of God.
At last year’s General Convention, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry set forth The Way of Love, a group of practices that can move us toward a response to that proposed Lenten question: What do I want? When we engage the disciplines of Turn, Learn, Pray, Worship, Bless, Go, Rest, we are participating in practices that draw us beyond the surface of things. They can lead us to the places where the image of Christ in our lives can show us that for which we truly long. May this season of Lent become a framework in which we reach for the life-giving desire that will take us home.