Lenten Paradox

Lenten Paradox

The Lenten journey, like the Christian journey itself, is full of paradox. Jesus tells us paradoxes like, in order to find life, we must lose it, that the first will be last and the last will be first, that those who humble themselves will be exalted and those who exalt themselves will be humbled. Our rational minds have a hard time with paradox, and, therefore, our Lenten practices inevitably get misunderstood. We see Lent as a time of denial. But it is not denial for denial’s sake. It is denial of the superficial in search of something much greater. Jesus’ call for us to take up our cross sounds so dismal to our age which believes that we are only fully alive when we are going for the gusto. But the Christian affirmation is that the cross is the only true path to the life we seek. How can this be?

The cross only makes sense when we acknowledge that we humans live in the intersection between the material and spiritual dimensions of the cosmos of which we are a part. The spiritual dimension is subtle and intense, inward as well as external, invisible as well as visible. It is the depth and the source of this familiar material dimension in which we live out our lives. If we believe that this dimension of materiality is all there is, then the cross makes no sense. The going for the gusto culture is based on the assumption that what you see is what you get. It leads to a fixation on experiences, things, possessions which, we assume, will give us fulfillment and joy.

But a careful examination of our lives begins to reveal the fallacy of these assumptions. There is something in the human soul which refuses to be satisfied with anything or anyone for more than a short time. Filled with freedoms, why do we feel like we are not free? Filled with material and relational blessings, why do we feel that something is amiss? What is amiss, our tradition affirms, is the freedom which is found only as we give ourselves to God, the blessings which come only as we stop grasping and begin to let go. It comes to paradox again.

There is a spiritual dimension to the cosmos and until we learn to search for it and to nurture our capacity to connect with it, we will always feel less than completely at home. The call is not to ignore the material dimension of our lives or stop caring about them, but to discipline our attachment to this dimension so that the spiritual can begin to seep through and into our awareness. As we begin to have our hearts drawn to this spiritual dimension, we start to learn its norms and operations, which are different from the more familiar norms and operations of the material order. It doesn’t make sense to our minds, but our spirits somehow know that by letting go of self, we begin to experience more of God. The cross is not a symbol of denial as much as it is a symbol of the paradoxical path which leads us to the fulness and wholeness that our souls long for. The Lenten journey is not about a turning away from life, but an experience of Life in all of its fullness. Self-preoccupation and self-centeredness get in the way of what we truly seek and need.

As the psalmist says, “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” That’s what Lent is about: an invitation to taste this path of paradox to see if it delivers the goods. See you in church!

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