Don't get comfortable this Lent

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Article Saints, Feasts, and Seasons Spirituality
Lent’s 40 days should disturb our consumer complacency.

The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert,” says the Gospel of Mark to open Lent this year. Unlike in Matthew and Luke’s accounts, however, Mark’s Jesus is not invited to turn stones into bread to satisfy his hunger; there is no clever repartee between Jesus and the devil. Mark is content to tell us that Jesus, like every other human being, had to choose between the kingdom of God and that of Caesar. Jesus, of course, gets it right: “The kingdom of God is at hand,” he proclaims from the desert. “Repent, and believe in the gospel.”

Mark’s unspecified temptations do us all a favor at the start of these 40 days: None of us will be tempted to turn rocks into food or fling ourselves from the church steeple. At the same time the invitation to be someone other than children of God’s kingdom is no less powerful than it was for Jesus—and our contemporary adversaries no less clever. But while Satan offered Jesus power and prestige, our modern temptations seem hellbent on keeping us quietly content.

Madison Avenue and the big box stores, for example, dub us “consumers” and lead us in a liturgy of brand loyalty. As the happy new owner of an iPad, I can attest to how easy it is to fall into the trap of feeding desires we never knew we had—stream Netflix and update Facebook without getting up from the couch!—with things someone else makes. Far from our minds is the possibility that we might also be producers—of our own food, for example, or clothes, or even our own music—having lost many of the skills to build and repair, plant and harvest, cook and sew that our great-grandparents took for granted. Why bother? It’s easier to just buy it.

Politicians call us “taxpayers” to stir up our indignation and win our votes, but rarely do we hear the more active label “citizen,” and rarer still do we see anyone acting like one. Words like “activist” and “protester” have almost become epithets; just take a listen to some of the names those Occupiers have been called. But how many of us have stirred up the effort to even be an election judge?

At work we’re “employees,” our individuality and creativity sometimes harnessed but just as often drained away in exchange for a necessary paycheck. As time on the clock eats up more and more of life, we push our hopes for vocation or fulfillment to the future or to retirement—reluctant to consider the possibility that we may never make it there or be in any condition to pursue a new mission once we do.

Even in church, we’re “the faithful” in the pews: quiet, passive, paying our dues. That our baptism and weekly Eucharist should provoke us to action is a nice thought, but most of us remain, literally, on the bench. Much as I complain that the bishops changed the Mass without my input, I’m in no hurry to volunteer for the parish council, much less the parish ministry to people who lack food and shelter.

Indeed, if the kingdom of Caesar once imposed its will with the violence of legionnaires and puppet kings, today it seems to have discovered softer tools. If Jesus emerged from the desert today, his first words would likely have to be, “Take out your earbuds! The kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

And there’s the rub: Jesus came out of the desert announcing God’s revolution, an alternative to the empire under whose boots Galilee’s poor languished. Caesar’s boots have changed owners over the centuries, but they keep stomping away nonetheless.

And so Jesus still calls for allies, activists, even conspirators. God needs fewer “taxpayers,” more citizens and activists (maybe even some Occupiers); fewer “employees” and more entrepreneurs and community organizers; fewer “consumers” and more farmers and bakers, artists and quilters. And the church, the down payment on the reign of God, needs fewer “faithful” and more heroes and saints and peacemakers and mystics—more prophets to announce that God’s revolution is at hand.

If this Lent is anything, maybe it can be an invitation to set down the iPad, call a Facebook fast, and head out to the wilderness to get our marching orders.

This article appeared in the March 2012 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 77, No. 3, page 8).

Image: Tom Wright


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