The Christian lives – and we find ourselves, here in February – between two great poles: Christmas and Easter. In one, God becomes man. In the other, that God-man dies on the Cross. Sometimes it seems rather a tension: Christmas is so happy, Lent and the Cross so miserable.
Do you ever find it strange, when we say the Creed during Mass, that we bow down at “became man” – and then immediately stand up for “for our sake he was crucified”? There is a kind of prioritization here: awesome as is the mystery of the Cross, we treat the Incarnation as even more awesome.
In fact there is some evidence that Christmas is not the original feast of the Incarnation; the Annunciation is, March 25. Which is, of course, right in the middle of Passover season, a classic date, depending on the year, for Easter.
Rather than thinking of Christmas and Easter as two separate feasts, we might think of the Incarnation and the Cross as one and the same. The Cross is simply the culmination of the mystery of God made man.
Our Gospel reading for the first Sunday in Lent is Christ going into the desert: his forty days. We often think of Lent as an imitation of Christ’s days in the wilderness, but I think that’s backwards. To the contrary, it is Christ who enters into our Lent. We don’t do Lent because he did it – he did it because we need to do it, and we need him there beside us. Christ joins us in Lent – just as the Cross is the culmination of God becoming man: he dies because we must.
Lent is our baptismal retreat. In our Gospel from Mark, Jesus has just been baptized; he goes out to be “tempted by Satan” and “among wild beasts,” but “angels ministered to him”; and he comes back to say, “Repent!” We need that repentance. We are among wild beasts, and tempted by Satan. We need angels to minister to us, and the Holy Spirit to “drive” us, as it drove him. We need Lent. And we need the strength of Jesus to get us through it.
We need Baptism, which our reading from First Peter calls, “not a removal of dirt from the body but an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”
Note first: Baptism is about a clear conscience, conversion, repentance. It is about lifting up our hearts to the Lord, turning to God. That’s what we do here in the wilderness of Lent.
But it is “through the resurrection of Jesus Christ”: only through his life-giving power can we live this Lenten Cross as a lifting up and not a sinking down into despair. Only Christ turns the desert into a place of praise, because only Christ can give life to the dead.
In our first reading, God gives Noah the rainbow as a sign of his covenant, and isn’t that sweet.
But look closer at the imagery: God has destroyed the earth through rain. His promise is “the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all mortal beings.” And the sign of that promise, the rainbow, appears precisely in the clouds, when it rains, as a kind of shield to protect the earth. Or rather, it appears after the rain, as if, when the waters of death threaten, the beauty of God intervenes to hold them at bay.
The Cross of Christ is the rainbow – just as when Moses holds up the serpent in the desert. When suffering and death appear – and Lent and the Cross – we look up into the darkness, and there is the beautiful Face of God. There on the Cross is the Incarnation. There in the waters of Baptism, with its call to repentance, is the Spirit of the resurrection.
Conversion hurts. Change hurts. Growing out of our selfishness, and pride, and yes, our sensuality: it all hurts. (Almsgiving fights selfishness; prayer opposes pride; fasting is against sensuality.) Lent hurts.
We need the rainbow. We need to contemplate the beautiful face of Christ, there on the Cross, to know that God is with us through that pain. Because, indeed, the point of all this is not suffering, but union – not the Cross, but the Incarnation. Before he goes to die he prays that we may be united to the Father as he is united: that’s the point.
Christ offers us Lent. Indeed, he gives death itself as a gift, a retreat, a time of transformation. But the goal is not to suffer, the goal is, through conversion, to enter into the Unity of the Trinity. And the means, the narrow path to survive in the desert, is a Lenten wilderness not walked alone, but side by side with Christ. He enters into our wilderness, joins us on our retreat.
Where is your rainbow? How does the beauty of God help you find hope in suffering?