How long can you spend trapped in an elevator with Jesus?
My wife and I currently work as teachers at a Canadian curriculum school in China. As you can imagine, with the coronavirus scare, classes have been cancelled, which means we have a lot of free time on our hands. However, because of obvious health concerns, a lot of restaurants and other public places are also closed, and residents are discouraged from going outside unless they need to. Some of our favourite places to dine haven’t been open for more than a month. If you do go out, everyone’s face is concealed by surgical masks, and all the door handles and elevator buttons are covered in plastic. It is quiet here, to say the least. It feels almost monastic.
Under these conditions, it’s easy to get bored. But, in some ways, it’s a providential situation at the start of Lent, since that’s sort of what the Church is doing to all of us during these 40 days. Just as the world outside our door is constantly reminding us about the danger of this potentially fatal disease, the Church’s liturgy, starting with the marks of death on our face on Ash Wednesday, reminds us of our own mortality and urges us to act accordingly. Just as the usual consolations and conveniences of everyday life in China are largely gone, so also the Church mutes some of her joy during Lent by dropping the Gloria and the Alleluia. Just as our favourite places to eat out are locked up, the Church is asking her children to fast and abstain.
What has come of all this? For one thing, because so much of industry in China (which is normally chugging away 24-7) has slowed down, pollution has sharply decreased. The air and skies are far more clean, and clear, than usual. This is supposed to be the effect of our fasting: To stop being so preoccupied with consuming things so that we can see Heaven more clearly. The toxic fumes of constant mental activity should abate during this time so that the healing wind of the Spirit can blow more effortlessly through our hearts.
Of course, fasting can make us feel even farther from God. We often meet people – including ourselves – who seem far less Christ-like during Lent, deprived as they are of their coffee and comfort food. But I think this is why Lent is so important. We need to see frankly and honestly how strong our relationship with Jesus really is when it isn’t so easy to pamper ourselves.
I can honestly say that my relationship with my wife is stronger because we have to spend so much time at home together these days. Without the ability to go out on a typical date, or even to have the distance that being away from each other at work provides, we have gotten to know each other (including each other’s faults) better than we would have without this opportunity. We have had to learn to be more creative in communicating with each other, with passing the time together, with being present together.
Prayer and the spiritual life are often like being on a date with Jesus, where we seek after blessings and consolations and feelings of being loved. It’s easy to be grateful to God for all the blessings He gives us when we’re free to enjoy all those blessings at our leisure. But Lent is more like being trapped in an elevator with Jesus – or like being trapped at home with him all day. Any tension and dissatisfaction you have with Him and with your life should come up during this time. This is your chance to talk to Him about it. After all, that’s the only way you’re going to get closer to Him.
Fasting and abstinence isn’t just about self-discipline. More importantly, it’s about finding ways to deepen your relationship with Jesus. When you can’t cheer yourself up with a bacon breakfast on a Friday morning, are you going to bring that irritation to Christ? It might feel like you’re having to force yourself to focus and pray when you’re feeling the hunger pangs of the fast, but this is a beautiful moment for you to find new ways to invite Him to give you grace and be present to you, even when you’re feeling miserable.
One important way to get to know Christ better is through reading Scripture. St. Jerome, who translated the Bible into Latin (at the time, the language of the common people) famously said that “ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.” This doesn’t just mean that the Bible tells us about Jesus and we need to read it to learn about Him. The Church has long recognized that, just as Jesus is fully present in every crumb of the Eucharistic Host, He is also fully present in every single verse of every book of the Bible. We don’t always take the time to explore certain passages of Scripture, especially the ones that, for one reason or another, are more difficult to consume, but we need to remember that Jesus is waiting for us in those forbidding corners of our holy books.
Lent is a good time to delve more deeply into the Bible, including its most challenging passages, for at least two reasons. One is that this is what Jesus modeled for us. As the Gospels tell us, when He was tempted with sin after being weakened and famished for 40 days, it was Scripture that He quoted to fortify Himself and drive the devil away. The fourth-century monk Evagrius wrote a book called Talking Back, a collection of Scriptures that a Christian could fall back on during times of temptation and could use to rebuke evil thoughts that came to them. He has a section specifically on resisting gluttony, which I have been going over during this time when my stomach rumbles.
The other reason Lent is a good time for studying Scripture is because fasting makes us more sensitive to what God is trying to feed us through His Word. When St. Thomas Aquinas came to a difficult or confusing part of Scripture, he would fast and pray for a deeper understanding of what it was saying. Sometimes, when this happens, God will grant you insights into passages which seem strange and forbidding, and they will take on a new meaning and relevance. The key is to always ask yourself: What is this passage saying about Jesus? How would He have recognized Himself here?
Let me give an example. The Book of Judges is about military leaders who delivered Israel from their enemies in the Promised Land. The Church’s tradition, based on the New Testament, sees this as allegorical for the ways we are called to drive sin out of our own lives so that Christ can dwell in our hearts more fully. Judges 3 tells of two such judges: Ehud and Shamgar. Ehud graphically kills an enormous foreign king by shoving a sword into him, while Shamgar slays 600 Philistine soldiers with an ox-goad (a tool used by farmers to prompt their cattle to move forward).
It’s all fairly gruesome, and it’s not obvious what good it is for us to know all this. But we need to let Scripture interpret Scripture here. The Bible often portrays the word of God as a sword (Ephesians 6:17, Hebrews 4:12, Revelation 1:16). It is often a line from the Bible that can kill a “big sin” in our lives by showing us that it is wrong. An ox-goad, on the other hand, reminds us of the work of agriculture, of ploughing a field, repeatedly going over and over it in order to plant seeds and cultivate the harvest–an image Jesus is constantly using to describe the Christian life. This reminds us of how we have to continually kill our “little sins” by keeping up the constant work of serving Christ throughout our lives, even if it means we deal with 600 temptations a day.
I recognize something like this in my own life. As a teacher, I value the times during the day I get a break and have some time to myself, and I find I sometimes get unduly irritated if someone comes to my classroom with some additional task for me when I’m trying to relax. This is a “big sin” of a kind of laziness and self-centeredness. It was “stabbed” for me when I read 1 John 4:20: “Those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” I can’t say I love God if I can’t show love to the people who knock on my classroom door during my prep time. This was a kingly sin that Christ needed to plunge the sword of Scripture into.
But, now that I know that, I need to live it out. I need to repeatedly practise showing patience with and being present to the people who would normally bother me. Every time I feel inconvenienced or annoyed by someone (which, I’m sure you know, can happen many times a day), it’s like another enemy soldier trying to sneak into my soul to corrupt me. I need to plough the field of myself again, work the soil of my heart, go back and forth thoroughly over every aspect of my life to make sure this Scripture really sinks in and takes root there, if I’m going to kill the evil of selfishness and narcissism. Often, I need to do this by asking myself the question posed by the Lutheran pastor Richard Wurmbrand, who spent 14 years in a Romanian dungeon: “If that were Christ, would you give Him your blanket?” Of course, the person at my door is Christ. I need to love that person if I want to love God. But I need to practice this every day, like a farmer with his ox-goad. This understanding of Judges 3 has turned its grisly narrative into a kind of treasure for me.
The wilderness of Lent is a time where the vistas of Scripture can open up for us. And, through those vistas, we can see Christ more clearly. One of the reasons medieval Europeans were so conscious of their need for God was because of the Black Death reminding everyone that life was fleeting. God willing, the coronavirus will not become a new bubonic plague, but its presence should have a similar effect on us. You could enter eternity at any moment to face God’s judgment. Now, while you have the chance, is the time to sit in the silence of the famished desert with Christ, the usual barriers of personal comfort and satisfaction set aside so that they won’t distract you, so that you can get to know Him better.
–Brett Fawcett is a teacher and columnist. He has degrees in theology and education and is the winner of the 2018 Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Excellence in Social Studies Education.