Jules Does

Jules Does… The Bible? Lent Week 1

Posted on: February 14, 2016

lent

From cartoonchurch.com

So, for those of you who haven’t heard, we are currently in the Church’s season of Lent, a 40-day period in which Christians are encouraged in a special way to fast, pray and give alms. You may know someone (or be someone!) who is giving something up for Lent – chocolate is a popular choice, as is alcohol. Perhaps less well known is the option to take something up for Lent, such as reading a spiritually improving book, or praying for a specific cause or group. This morning, while listening to today’s homily, it struck me that I could stand to read the Bible more closely, and a good way of doing this would be to meditate on the readings chosen for the Mass each day (or Sunday – baby duties may mean that I can’t read or write as much as I might like) and to write my thoughts down here.

Today’s readings were Deuteronomy 26:4-10, Romans 10:8-13 and Luke 4:1-14  (these links all go to the New International Version of the Bible, but I encourage you to use the New Jerusalem translation, which isn’t available on BibleGateway, unfortunately), and the reading from Deuteronomy reminds us in no uncertain terms that the 40 day journey through Lent to Easter, in which we imitate Christ’s 40 days in the desert after His baptism as recalled in Luke, has a parallel in the 40 year  journey of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land in Canaan. The reason that the journey took 40 years can be found in the (very very dry) book of Numbers, Chapter 14. Put simply, the Israelites doubted that they could successfully capture the fertile and beautiful land of Canaan, since their scouts told them that everything in the land, including the produce and the people, was absolutely gigantic. The Israelites accused God of leading them out of slavery and genocide in Egypt only to destroy them utterly at the final hurdle. In response to this, God says that not one of the adult Israelites who had grumbled against His plan will enter the Promised Land, and condemns them to wander in the desert for 40 years until they all die and their worthier children can enter the land instead.

We can see a few things from this right away: the 40 years in the desert is intended to purify the Israelites of this doubting element gradually, not all at once – God doesn’t strike every doubter down in an instant. The road to perfection is gradual and takes time to achieve. What’s more, in this period of 40 years of wandering, the Israelites must depend utterly on God’s mercy and protection to sustain them. They are unable to plant and grow food, since they are constantly on the move, and are surrounded by more or less barren wasteland. They are also constantly encountering people who wish to curse, conquer or otherwise destroy them.

This reading from Deuteronomy comes just as the Israelites have finished their wanderings in the desert and are about to enter the Promised Land. Before they make a move, Moses (who will die right at the edge of Canaan) stands up and proclaims God’s Law one last time to the Israelites. He reminds them at once of how they were punished for doubting God, and he also re-tells the stories of how the Lord enabled them to conquer the hostile kings of the area. Israel look poised to enter the land as conquerors, respected and feared by all of their neighbours.

But what does he tell them to do? In this reading, he tells them that every offering they make to the Lord, as well as every offering made by their children and their children’s children until the end of time, must begin with a reminder that God took a tiny people, made them great, and led them by the hand to the land that He had promised to give them. In the barrenness of the desert, God grew an entire race, supported them, protected them, and led them to a home.

The desert is a recurring theme in the Old and New Testaments. It is an obvious symbol of waste, detachment, emptiness and barrenness. Here I think a comparison with the ancient poet Homer is in order – in the Odyssey, he describes the sea as ‘unploughed’. The sea is obviously not infertile, since it produces fish, but it is impossible to grow anything in or on it. You cannot build your farm, plough the sea and harvest your crop. You cannot build a home on the ocean; it is only ever a place of transit. This leads neatly to another person who undergoes a 40 day journey – Noah. Isolated on the ocean, cut off from almost everyone he’s ever known, away from his homeland, Noah depends on God to keep the ark, this last seed of terrestrial life, afloat and alive on the hostile sea until He brings them to some safe landing place. Noah’s period of waiting and trusting is a natural parallel with the 40-year journey of the Israelites, Christ’s 40-day fast in the desert and our own 40-day journeys. These parallels of barrenness, isolation and peril show us time and time again that God does not leave us unprotected and unprovided for, but He also does not simply skip to the end of things, and for a good reason. Out of the nothingness He grows something great.

At Mass today, the priest told us that the journey of the Israelites, Christ’s fast and our own Lenten fast are all shown again in our own lives, that each day we walk one step closer to Cavalry and, therefore, to the Resurrection, one day closer to our own deaths and therefore one day closer to spending eternity with God. We walk through the barrenness and inhospitality of our own lives, not putting down too many roots and becoming of this world because we are walking towards a place God has prepared for us where we will flourish and grow.

40 days on the ark, 40 years wandering, 40 days in the desert, 40 days of Lent. You know what else is a time period counted in increments of 40?

Pregnancy.

Out of the emptiness of a womb, God grows one little cell into a complex, fully functioning human being in 40 weeks. But the baby is not left in the womb, but at the end of the 40-week period is born into the world – it’s time for what was made in that 40 weeks to reach fulfilment in the place where it is meant to be.

So too we can bring beautiful things (whether it be forming good habits, breaking bad ones, or gaining deeper spiritual understanding) into existence over the course of this Lent, but Lent is never really over. Lent is (or can be) a time where beautiful things grow and are brought to birth by the grace of God, but afterwards we must keep walking, step by step, to our own completion and perfection in heaven.

See, I am doing a new thing!
    Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness
    and streams in the wasteland.

Isaiah 43:19

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