August 01, 2008

Lent is Scary; It Hurts Like Hell

by Brian E. Volck
The Catholic lectionary readings for the Second Sunday of Lent include the Transfiguration account, a reading many Protestant traditions heard two weeks earlier. In any case, I have nothing to add to the vast libraries of commentary devoted to that gospel episode. It’s 2 Timothy that I have on my mind this Lenten week (Those of you hearing Romans 4 also have something meaty to dwell on. It’s rather more closely related to the Genesis passage, but that’s another matter…) Here’s the text from Timothy:

Join with me in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God, who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace. This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.

The traditional practices of Lent – prayer, fasting and almsgiving – were, of course, never meant to earn God’s love and forgiveness.

I’m confident even Johann Tetzel acknowledged that. Still, somewhere in many Christian hearts lingers the hope that all this hard stuff we may take on before Easter will pay off in the very long run. But, unlike dieting, a new exercise program, or extensive plastic surgery (something, I’m told, that hurts a great deal, no matter how effectively the surgeon dopes up the patient) all our pain still adds up to no gain without the grace God lavishes on us, according to his purpose rather than our merits. We are not in control of our salvation. That’s lesson number one.

It’s funny, though, that for all my scripture study and theological reading, the two figures that come vividly to mind when I hear the Timothy passage are Eustace Scrubb and Jill Pole. I know there are more profound accounts of justification and God’s sovereignty than The Chronicles of Narnia, but I read these books aloud to my kids often enough when they were younger that whole passages come back at the slightest prompting.

Eustace is the ill-mannered boy whose thoroughly modern parents taught him, among other things, to love “animals, especially beetles, if they were dead and pinned on a card.” In the course of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Eustace turns into a dragon, and can only reassume human form when Aslan, the lion, tells him to “undresss.” Eustace tries his best, but every time he scrapes off a layer of scales, more scale appears. At last, Aslan does it for him. Later, Eustace recalls, “The very first tear he made was so deep I thought it had gone right through my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off.”

On another visit to Narnia recounted in The Silver Chair, Eustace’s friend Jill Pole loses her way in Aslan’s woods. Scared and incredibly thirsty, she spies a stream beside which crouches a lion. She hesitates:

“Are you not thirsty?” said the Lion.

“I’m dying of thirst,” said Jill.

“Then drink,” said the Lion.

“May I—could I – would you mind going away while I do?” said Jill.

The Lion answered this only with a look and a very low growl….The delicious rippling noise of the stream was driving her nearly frantic.

“Will you promise not to – do anything to me, if I do come?” said Jill.

“I make no promise,” said the Lion.

Jill was so thirsty now that, without noticing it, she had come a step nearer.

“Do you eat girls?” she said.

“I have swallowed up girls and boys, women and men, kings and emperors, cities and realms,” said the Lion. It didn’t say this as if it were boasting, nor as if it were sorry, nor as if it were angry. It just said it.

“I daren’t come and drink,” said Jill.

“Then you will die of thirst,” said the Lion.

“Oh dear,” said Jill, coming another step nearer. “I suppose I must go and look for another stream then.”

“There is no other stream,” said the Lion.

That’s Lent. That’s what’s happens when we give up our our delightful distractions and hand ourselves over to the wild and dangerous God revealed in Jesus Christ. It’s incredibly scary. It hurts – almost exactly – like hell. And there is no other stream.

(Originally published Tuesday, February 12, 2008)

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