1 Lent Year A 3-9-14
©Holly Lyman Antolini
Lections: Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Ps. 32; Matthew 4:1-11
All the faithful will make their prayers to you in time of trouble, O God; when the great waters overflow, they shall not reach them. You are our hiding-place; you preserve us from trouble; you surround us with shouts of deliverance. AMEN.
Welcome to Lent! Welcome to the special Lenten invitation to journey deeper into our faith in this time in which we prepare to remember Jesus’ Passion – his suffering – and death in Holy Week and to celebrate his overcoming of that suffering in the Resurrection on Easter. Welcome to the Lenten challenge of discovering in our spiritual life both the dynamics of dying and the dynamics of resurrection, sometimes all at the same time, alongside the challenge of allowing doubt to accompany faith.
Because in the Christian life, as in Jesus’ life, “death” and “life” are not the “mutual exclusives” we make them out to be, any more than “doubt” and “belief” are opposites. Somehow we tend to get doubt and belief crossways of each other, as if one cancelled out the other. As if faith in Jesus would mean absence of doubt. But doubt and confusion seem woven along with faith into the very fabric of our humanity, the very way God created us, so that we must remain humble about how much we know, and must ever turn and turn to God for help.
In Matthew’s Gospel, the stories of Jesus' temptations in the wilderness pose a very different sort of "enemy" of faith than either doubt or death. In these stories, the enemy of faith is power. All three temptations posed by "the Tempter," as Matthew calls the devil, are temptations to hold power, whether power for good OR power for power's sake. Power tempts us not to need God.
Turning stones into bread: how seductive is that promise to the good liberals of urban Massachusetts! No more trouble with funding for the Greater Boston Food Bank! Or, extrapolating from bread to other necessities, no more transitional housing in cheap hotels with microwave foods and no laundry! No more concentrations of poverty in one or another district of the city! No more people left off the economic ladder! What power that would be!
Throwing ourselves off the pinnacle of the temple: no more limits to our human frailty! We can sleep four hours a night and work the other 20! We can sign our kids up for fifteen after-school activities and still expect them to complete an hour of community service and three hours of homework every night, without showing signs of stress! We can text and email while driving! We can drink three quarts of coffee and still toss back "Five-Hour Energy" in between!
Being in charge of all we survey: oh my goodness, we could command the end to global warming! From one vantage point, we could end all the strip mining, the fracking, the over-fishing, the acid rain and air pollution! We could reduce oil & gas consumption to nothing! From another, we could remove any temptation on the part of former Soviets to continue the old Communist policy of neighbor-domination! We could end tensions in the Holy Land, rescue the Syrian citizenry and stop the Iranian and North Korean nuclear projects!
To all of these prospects, Jesus consistently tells the tempter, No. No: that's not the way God chose to design the world. God's design is so infinitely complicated and so fluidly and continuously imaginative that none of us can get on top of it, even though God blessed us as God’s partners in its stewardship. When we acquire the illusion that we CAN get on top of it – read Adam & Eve and the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil – we only expose our naked limitations, our human frailties. We must take our place within the mighty and turbulent current of God’s ever-emerging Creation, working out our salvation in fear and trembling alongside all our fellow humans, all of whom struggle along as we do between clarity and confusion, doubt and faith, death and life. We must be connected with those fellow humans in order to have any hope of having enough insight and oversight, enough perspective to solve problems. Our individual contribution is invaluable but only as it connects up with the contributions of others, humbly aware of our shortcomings.
And we, from the vantage point of the First Sunday of Lent, know something of what lies ahead for Jesus in the working-out of his own salvation, now that he’s turned down the Tempter’s offers of power. We know he’s headed toward Holy Week before he gets to Easter. He’s headed toward powerlessness in its most acute form. There will be plenty of accomplishment along the way for Jesus, but also plenty of confusion, pain, fear and trembling. And ultimately there will be a cross, the stark testimonial to the dynamics of the Tempter's use of power when spurred by fear of the loss of that power.
In his letter to the Philippians, Chapter 2, Paul summed up the need we have for one another as followers of Jesus, stepping boldly into our doubt and our death in the humility of our humanity:
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.
In this wild Creation that God made for us, even God’s own Son – God’s own Self, in the Triune God – must empty himself and endure powerlessness before being “highly exalted,” as Paul puts it, in resurrection and ascension. Therefore, my beloved,” continues Paul to the Philippians, “…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”
Poet Christian Wiman, himself one who has discovered the profoundest life in the teeth of terrible cancer that threatens him with death at any moment, and faith in the teeth of his enduring and endemic doubt, invokes Jesus’ and our self-emptying this way, “Doubt ...is in some way the seed of Christianity itself, planted in the very heart of him (My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?) who is at once our God and our best selves, and it must be torn terribly, wondrously open in order to flower into living faith.” [Excerpt From: Wiman, Christian. “My Bright Abyss.” Farrar, Straus and Giroux.]
This week, I was blessed to attend a screening sponsored by our own Episcopal City Mission of a small documentary called The Vigil, about the Arizona law SB 1070, a law that criminalized the presence of undocumented people by forcing them to present immigration papers at any time, and by demanding their arrest, internment and deportation for even minor traffic infractions if they could not produce such papers.
The film focuses on a months-long vigil sponsored by Roman Catholic undocumented immigrants, held on the statehouse lawn in the period between Governor Jan Brewer's signing of the law and the date of implementation, as part of a much-wider effort to challenge the law’s implementation. In the film’s opening frames, a statue of the Virgin Mary of Guadalupe, the symbol of Mexican faith and also of Mexican independence and fortitude, is traveling belted into the passenger seat of a car. She is unloaded and set up in front of the state house and, as she is each and every day, loving decorated with a lace mantilla and flowers and beads and other adornments, as she presides over the long Vigil. Under her gentle plaster gaze gather immigrant families of all ages, in prayer and non-violence. Men are involved; we see a priest in a chasuble periodically at the Vigil. But the primary participants are undocumented housewives and their children, who spend every day from sun-up to nightfall under the Virgin of Guadalupe on folding chairs, making witness despite the danger of being visible in public in a climate of intense and realistic fear of arrest.
The chief protagonists of The Vigil are two women, one a housewife, Rosa, and the other Gina, the owner of a small second-hand shop. Both are mothers, and their children appear centrally in the film, Rosa's daughter, Dulce Matuz, who as a young-adult political organizer was chosen as one of TIME Magazine's 100 Most Influential People in 2012, and Gina's 10-year-old son, Brian, fearful of losing his mother to arrest for her activism at The Vigil. The story unfolds very much through the mothers’ eyes and their narrative (in Spanish), and through them, we begin to see the real hardships and privations, the struggles and terrors of the life of an undocumented immigrant in Arizona, as the powers-that-be in the state become more and more antagonistic and inclined to see “aliens” as the source of their economic and social woes. Thanks to the up-close interviews the women granted the filmmakers Jenny Alexander and Alexandra de Gonzalez, we are privileged to witness the two women stepping out of the safety of their hard-working, tax-paying, law-abiding anonymity, braving their fear and their truly alarming vulnerability, stepping out in faith, in order to witness to the injustice of the power dynamics at work in SB 1070. Gina could easily lose her son if she were deported; she even completes papers to assure that he will go to his grandparents in Mexico should that happen. Rosa DOES lose her daughter to arrest in Washington D.C. in a demonstration against SB 1070, and suffers the terror of uncertainty about whether Dulce will be released and whether she will be deported. Ultimately Dulce IS released and NOT deported, and ultimately three of the four provisions of the law itself, challenged in the U.S. Supreme Court, are struck down as violations of the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution, leaving only the provision requiring immigration status checks during law enforcement stops, a provision left standing but with the warning that further judicial action may be taken against that provision if it proves to invite racial profiling, as its critics insist it will.
What we see in The Vigil is a wondrous Lenten journey by two women into their vulnerability and fear for the sake of the wider welfare, demonstrating “the same mind in them that was in Christ Jesus,” as Paul told the Philippians, a mind not to let doubt or the threat of death dissuade them nor to let it undermine their faith and life, but to go forward in humility, looking to the interests of others, finding their encouragement in Christ.
On the very last day of the Vigil, after Dulce has been released and celebrated and the ruling has been given on the legislation, the Virgin comes down from her perch above the Vigil grounds. After days and months of safe passage to and from the Vigil and even a trip to demonstrate in Washington D.C. in front of the Supreme Court, the statue now falls and breaks into dozens of pieces, her loving face split apart on the grass. “It’s as if her job was done,” comments Gina. But she takes the Virgin’s pieces home anyway, and we see her, at the film’s end, reassembling and gluing them back together, the seams of Mary’s accident visible across her face.
It’s a fitting icon of our Lenten journey and our Lenten spiritual task: to say “NO!” to the Tempter’s offers of power; to allow ourselves – like Gina & Rosa, Dulce and Brian, like the Virgin herself – to risk breakage in our insistence on stepping out on behalf of the interests of our most vulnerable brothers and sisters, not “counting equality with God as a thing to be exploited, but emptying ourselves” of our power, …being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind” with Jesus, in humility and the knowledge that, though we suffer doubt and court death, God’s new life lies ahead. AMEN.