Lent Doesn’t Make Sense When Incarnation > Salvation

Instinct and revelation do not typically occupy the same space. For a revelation reveals truth […]

John Zahl / 3.11.19

Instinct and revelation do not typically occupy the same space. For a revelation reveals truth that we otherwise would miss. In this regard, religion is most interesting when it offers ideas that are distinct and/or counterintuitive, when it brings something new to bear upon the old.

In particular, the idea that God cares for the weak and has compassion for the sinner constitutes a relatively distinct claim. Certainly the Pharisees were not convinced. The same could also be said of most people, since we so often equate survival with being the fittest. We avoid weakness at all costs.

Today it seems most voices in the Church (at least the one to which I belong) seek to advocate a message about the human self that aligns almost exactly with the shallow philosophies proffered in any issue of Cosmopolitan Magazine. Cue the preacher who interprets loving your neighbor as yourself as being about, well, loving yourself. Under the auspices of “Incarnational” language, the individual is deified. The true self is equated with the divine, and this is assumed to be a profound approach, and not that of every Montessori teacher/college drop-out. God-as-self is the most basic (#Basic) and misleading path in the world. The pursuit of it is the pursuit of self-interest: spirituality without humility. The assumption seems to be: “I must increase so that God might increase.”

But this a story played out in Genesis 3, the third chapter of a book containing 1,189 chapters. One could easily contend that no story should end there. Or, at least, there is more to say than: “You are God.” While creation certainly reflects the Creator (“…and it was good”), that does not mean it is all good. The Incarnation is not about self-esteem, and faith is, quite to the contrary, about God-esteem, if it is anything.

Some contend that if/when a person looks inside of themselves, they will discover something holy. St. Paul assumed the opposite, which is that looking inside, instead, inspires a person to seek God outside of themselves (i.e., on a cross). Many psychologists agree. B. F. Skinner famously stated: “The only difference between men and rats is that rats learn from their mistakes.”

People need to look inside if they are to understand religion, of course. They need to reflect. …But it is so they can discover pride, and, thus, find something worthy of confession. It’s why William Porcher DuBose wrote that, “Only the saint knows sin.” There is a reason why solitary confinement is the worst punishment that can be given to an inmate.

There is another related assumption, which is that spirituality is born in solitude. Apparently one needs to get away from people in order to get close to God #selfcare. Here again, the Judeo-Christian tradition pushes back. Christianity has never thought too highly of individuation. At least not as a goal. Instead, we propose that spiritual growth requires other people for its mooring. Certainly love does, if it is ever to find an object to point its attention. God loves sinners, and so too must you if ever you are going to resemble the truly divine.

Christian spirituality does not advocate “cutting out negativity.” It embraces negativity. We do not say “prioritize yourself.” Give of yourself instead. What kind of a parent, for example will you be if you do not experience sacrifice? The answer is: a bad parent. What kind of a spouse will you be if you do not compromise? A divorced one. What kind of a child will you be if you do not do this? An estranged one… permanently. Do you know any people who are incapable of admitting when they are wrong?

Simply saying sorry, and then receiving forgiveness – forgiveness, please note, is another big piece of Christianity that most Christians these days seem to have no time for – is a far more sane approach to life than any other I’ve come across. Denial and defensiveness are the much less becoming alternatives. Thank God for Lent, for calling reality out onto the carpet.

May God have mercy on your soul. This is the revelation, which is that He will.

There’s an episode of Chef’s Table on Netflix, about the Italian chef Dario Cecchini. Dario is famous for making the most delicious dishes in the world using all of the parts of animals that people typically discard (think organ meats, snouts, and entrails). Amazingly, his restaurant has been a phenomenal success, and guests travel from all over to order food that they have spent their entire lives trying to avoid. That’s how Lent is for me. I spent so much time trying to get away from the idea of repentance, and now I look forward to Lent all year long. Amen.