July 22, 2018

Lent is not about getting better


Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

• John 12:24, NRSV

• • •

Lent is not about getting better.
Lent is about preparing to die.

The word “lent” means “spring.”
But Lent is not the spring. Lent leads to spring, as death leads to new life.
Lent is the muddy, mucky fecund field awaiting the deposition of the seeds.

Lent’s destination is a cross and Holy Saturday.
Darkness, a forsaken hill, a sealed tomb.
The death of God, hope’s demise.

From strength to weakness, from weakness to humiliation, from humiliation to death, from death to burial.

The lenten season is traditionally the time when catechumens are prepared for baptism.
Forty days of getting ready to drown.

119795613.SEO5s3LBLent is the death bed vigil.
As we say in hospice, it involves coming to terms with our terminality.
I have sat with patients and their families during those vigils, some of them interminably long.
It is the hardest thing to answer when someone says, why must they linger so?
Why indeed, for forty days, must we watch ourselves dying ’til we’re dead?

I have seen and participated in approaches to Lent that differ from this.
Dubbed “adventures,” “training,” “journeys,” “discipline” or “formation,” the focus was on getting better, stronger, more mature, more capable. Casting off death so as to become more alive. Stripping off the sin that so easily besets us and running a good race to the finish.

I don’t know.

Forty years in the wilderness didn’t make Israel stronger. It was just long enough for the old generation to drop so that God could make way for a new one.

And I’ve changed how I visualize Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness too. Somehow I used to have this idea of Jesus standing strong at the end of forty days, triumphantly rebuking the devil so that he had to flee the Savior’s power. Frankly, that’s probably hogwash. After forty days of fasting, it was more likely a gaunt, weakened and sickly Savior who could barely whisper his replies. Mark tells us that the wild beasts were circling and that “the angels ministered to him.” Now I picture a haggard, dusty body laying face down in the sand, the hyenas and buzzards eagerly watching for that final breath. It took supernatural beings to come and lift his chin and drip water through his parched and chapped lips along with a tiny bite of food. Jesus in extremis, guarded from jackals, nursed back to health one sip, one crumb at a time.

That’s what forty days of dying looks like.

I don’t want to die. I doubt you do either.
Which is why Lent is hard for us after all.
We can talk all we want about what’s coming on the other side, but it’s the death bed we’re all trying to avoid.
We want the fruit without the mud and the muck.
Death we can live with. It’s the dying part that’s hard.

But that is Lent.
It’s not about getting better.
It’s about dying until we’re dead.


  1. Christiane says:

    ““When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die.”

    (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)

  2. davidbrainerd says:

    “Mark tells us that the wild beasts were circling…”

    That’s an interesting spin on “and he was with the wild beasts.” It doesn’t say one word about circling. Nor indeed is it likely that fasting for 40 days actual meant literally eating nothing (despite Luke exaggerating it that way; it has to be read as hyperbole). Christ’s fasting for 40 days is intended to show his piety, not to be a miracle. But nobody can survive for 40 days eating literally nothing. His fasting, therefore, probably consisted of only eating meagre fair that could be found in the wilderness, just like John the Baptist who Jesus describes as having “come fasting” whose diet is described for us as consisting of “locusts and wild honey.” So I’m thinking each of those 40 days Jesus ate at least one bug…so this whole starving to death thing is absurd. I’m sure he was really really really hungry, but this wasn’t absolute starvation with “buzzards eagerly watching for that final breath.”

    • flatrocker says:

      Interesting that you take issue by siding with a literalist approach to CM’s use of the phrase “wild beasts were circling.” And then you immediately follow with a most generous speculative intrepretation of where the full text gets it wrong. Having cake and eating it too is always the best dessert, I’ve heard.

      As far as fasting, there are numerous instances where humans have shown capability to fast for extremely long periods of time without caloric intake. The length is generally determined by physical health, genetics, metabolic rate and hydration among others. So to say that fasting for dramatically extended periods is “absurd” flies in the face of demonstrated reality. Miracles are always welcome, but they are optional here.

      The length of time is not problematic. Whether it was 40 days or 40 hours is not the point of the story. What is problematic for us is why he did it. What difference did it make in his life and what were the cosmic consequences? And how does it affect our lives that we so desperately cling to and the death that is to come? Maybe that is the point CM is making here.

      • Numerology would have a word with you. I mean, if you line up all the 40s in the Bible and break out a concordance, it proves something! Right?

        • Yes, it does prove something. But it would probably take me 40 years to figure out what it actually does mean. And by then, I would have forgotten what it was we were trying to prove in the first place. Can we just talk about my favorite dessert instead?

      • davidbrainerd says:

        “And then you immediately follow with a most generous speculative intrepretation of where the full text gets it wrong. ”

        Not at all. Its more like Luke over embellished the fasting thing where Matthew and Mark got it exactly right. “He ate nothing” — obvious hyperbole since neither Matthew nor Mark say that.

    • ” Nor indeed is it likely that fasting for 40 days actual meant literally eating nothing”

      Which is apropos to what? This is poetry.

      The post is drawing a compare-and-contrast between Lent as a rite of participatory dying and Lent as a rite of “adventures/training/journeys/discipline/formation”.

      The story in Scripture is far too scant, of course it will expanded upon. It is Literature. And the Hebrews had long customs of treating Scripture in this way.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        ” Nor indeed is it likely that fasting for 40 days actual meant literally eating nothing”

        Which is apropos to what? This is poetry.

        “When you point at something with your finger, the dog sniffs your finger. To a dog, a finger is a finger and that is that.” — C.S.Lewis

        • HUG, I love a good C.S.Lewis quote – but this one needs to be retired. Dogs understand pointing pretty much across the board, and engage in gaze following [no pointing required; just: hey, whatcha looking at]. With a modern understanding of intelligence this quote means isn’t the original; now it means “Nah, I see that, but your finger is more interesting” 🙂

          • Dave Denis says:

            Or, even more likely, your finger smells more interesting.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

            Dogs understand pointing pretty much across the board, and engage in gaze following [no pointing required; just: hey, whatcha looking at].

            Going sideways into Math Truth instead of Poem Truth?
            You have just confirmed my point.
            Woof Woof.

    • But nobody can survive for 40 days eating literally nothing.”

      Yes you can. I’ve known people who did it. They weren’t it good shape at the end, but they did it.


      • I know someone who did 40 days, also. And he told me he’d never recommend it, and probably wouldn’t do it ever again.

    • Wild idea, maybe Christ did not fast for literal 40 days, but for a long period of time.

      Numerology for the loss…

      • Faulty O-Ring says:

        I doubt everything, but…say, isn’t Lent coming up? And isn’t Lent a roughly 40-day fasting period? Which reminds us that “fasting” by ancient standards rarely meant total avoidance of food. In liturgical churches, Lent only applies to meats and, depending on the day, other high-status foods. (It is entirely possible, though no doubt very wicked, to gain weight during Lent.) Meanwhile, in Islam, they fast during the day during Ramadan (which lasts one lunar month, more or less), but feast at night. I would assume that whatever Jesus may have been doing–and remember that this is just a story, not a historical record–would have stopped short of intentional starvation. As for what he DID eat, well…how would you do it? You could bring your own food supply, and/or perhaps cultivate a small garden (as the Desert Fathers often did), but I wouldn’t depend on eating locusts. (For one thing, I understand the taste to be disgusting.)

    • Patrick Kyle says:


      More reasons why we shouldn’t believe the scriptures. ‘Hath God really said…?’

      • davidbrainerd says:

        Matthew and Mark take precedence over Luke…that’s why they come first.

        • I hope that statement is tongue-in-cheek.

        • flatrocker says:

          And Leviticus takes precedence over Matthew, so let’s just refer to the whole of the NT as an “obvious hyberbole”. It would make it so much more simpler that way. Or how ’bout a compromise – can we at least throw out Revelation seeing how it’s the least precedential in the lineup.

          • davidbrainerd says:

            Doesn’t work that way. Revelation is not a third retelling of the same story. Its pretty obvious when telling number 1 just says he fasted and telling number 2 just says he fasted and telling 3 says he ate nothing that an embellishment has entered in. Its a lot like Paul’s conversion story in Acts. He doesn’t claim that Jesus told him he would appear before kings and so on until the 3rd telling. The first two, Jesus just asks him why he kicks against the pricks and tells him to go into the city and he’ll be told what to do (by Ananaias).

  3. Well said CM.
    “Death and life are in an eternal embrace. We cannot have one without the other.” Richard Rohr

    • This week we got the news that my wife’s 46 year old “baby” sister has been diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer. She has a son in his twenties who was born with neurological defects of unknown origin; he needs constant supervision, but currently is living at home, having been denied residency in several institutions due to outbursts during which he violently throws any object at hand. Her new husband of only a year went out on a bender over the weekend, came home drunk and physically assaulted her other twenty-something son, breaking his nose. At a time when she needs support in the worst way, she has been forced to throw her new husband out of the house, and face things on her own.

      It may be that death and life are in an eternal embrace, one unable to exist without the other. But that does not explain why darkness can be so dark that it makes you forget that the light exists.

      • May I add then that I am a distinct non-fan of that design of existence and that rather than embracing it, true as it is, I live my life trying to avoid and circumvent it. That’s why I need a reminder like Lent and to reinforce things with quotes like Richard Rohr’s. Your sister in law has no need of a reminder like that. I am terribly sorry for her and pray that some relief, some healing and some peace find a way into her life. What can I say in the face of her situation? It does create the appearance, to paraphrase you, of a (God-forsaken) world of darkness. If she lived close by (Dallas) I’d bring her soup and take her son out for an hour or two. She needs help not words.

      • David Cornwell says:

        So sorry Robert. This is devastating news. At a loss to say anything else. But I will remember you and your family in my prayers.

      • Robert, I am so sorry. Words to her would be only an disgusting impertinence. She needs actual help, and I’ll pray for that, and be glad she has good relatives such as you and your wife. (For what little it may be worth, I was diagnosed with Stage 2-B breast cancer, very close to Stage 3, and after surgery and chemo am now currently cancer-free.)

      • Sorry to read this. Prayers going up.

      • We will be praying.

  4. doubting thomas says:

    Now I understand why while putting ashes on my forehead the minister said, ” Tom, you are dust, and to the dust you shall return.”

  5. pamela wood says:

    Thank you, Chaplain Mike for a very thoughtful meditation on our Savior. I don’t care if He ate nothing or ate bugs or if wild animals were circling or just in the picture or if it is poetic – THAT’S NOT THE POINT!!! I hate when WE (I do it too) reduce a beautiful portrayal like this to something inane like what He ate or what the animals were doing. We all (most of us) major in religion rather than a simple walk with CHRIST. Coming from an evangelical fundamentalist background, I am new to the whole Lent idea…and once again, I don’t want it to be about religion but about turning my mind to the cross and the sacrifice my LORD made for us all. May I ‘come and die with Him.’

    • Amen Amen Its only the talking heads in their puffed up minds that need to argue about animals and days and point out things that are not first things. Keep your eyes on Christ and the cross !!!!!

  6. Amen!

    We couldn’t get any better if we wanted to (where God is concerned). Because of what Christ has done for us in our Baptisms…there is nothing more that we can, or need to do. The word is ‘nothing’.

    Now…where our neighbors are concerned…there’s plenty that we MAY do. We have all the freedom and permission that we need.

  7. Adam Palmer says:

    This is so very good. Thank you, Chaplain Mike.

  8. “Why indeed, for forty days, must we watch ourselves dying ’til we’re dead?”

    As someone who spent 20 years at the beginning of his life as a Methodist, then left for nearly 50 years (not 40, note) of Baptist/non-denominational/charismatic/pentecostal wanderings, only to return four years ago to the UMC, I am a bit confused about the observance of Lent and what it is for.

    Christ’s 40-day experience in the wilderness occurred at the beginning of his ministry, not at the end. He was not dying then, except possibly to self, and I’m not sure He even needed to do that. He was led by the Spirit into the wilderness. The question then is not why, but how, is Lent forty days of watching ourselves dying until we are dead? Jesus didn’t take 40 days to die. In fact, it happened so quickly that even the soldiers who were ready to break his legs were surprised, a mere three hours (from the sixth hour to the ninth hour) on the day of his crucifixion.

    I enjoyed the recent low-church/high-church discussion and am much more into the liturgical approach than I was the first time around. But there must still be a bit of the evangelical/fundamentalist in me, as I struggle with the concept of giving up things for Lent. How is that not salvation by works? Aren’t Christians supposed to be full of joy, not gloom and doom. (Note. Being perennially happy-clappy is not the same thing as joy in my book.)

    As I said, I am a bit confused. There seem to be as many answers and points of view as there are commenters on internetmonk. Whether that turns out ultimately to be a good thing or a bad thing remains to be seen.

    • I’ll take a whack at it…

      Giving something up for Lent isn’t salvation by works in that it’s not done in order to earn or merit salvation (definitely not justification, and following today’s post, not sanctification either).

      Having said that, one purpose for observing it that may be amenable to your inner Evangelical/Fundamentalist is that in giving up something you enjoy, or taking on a responsibility you don’t normally have, you may begin to feel your own abjection in your heart by the difficulty of keeping your resolution. From here, you can then look to the cross and your Savior with strengthened faith (the real and only cause of justification and sanctification).

      If your faith is strong enough not to need a discipline so drastic, that’s great!. Eat, drink, and be merry, for Christ has won you eternal life!

    • davidbrainerd says:

      Its a substitute for giving up sin year round. Just give up chocolate for lent, then feel like you don’t have to give up fornication for the whole year. Its Pharisee loopholism.

  9. Jesus may not have needed to die to self, but he did need to identify with a people that need to. He also apparently needed to “be perfected through suffering”(Hebrews). If Jesus’ ministry was a proleptic act to fulfill Israel’s national corporate life (baptism=Red Sea, 40 day wilderness=40 yr wilderness, Sinai=sermon on the mount, resurrection=promised land), then it stands to reason that the church age will mirror his life/death/Life also. I think Lent is just the intentional awareness that he died our death in the past even though we do so in the present. For some, giving something up is training in this gospel awareness, not a salvation by works. I certainly hope all Christians can acknowledge that the church has yet to be raised in the body. Given that, it seems wise to set aside a time to reflect on death and suffering, even if it’s with a hope of new life.

  10. Thank you, Mike.

  11. Thanks for this, Mike. Wonderful.