Homily from the 1st Sunday of Lent, 2012
Which would you choose, 40 days on the open sea or 40 days in the open desert?
Sounds like some kind of survival show.
But no – it’s the sacred scripture this weekend.
Noah and Christ both make retreats into a type of wilderness, the open sea, the open desert: environments characterized by harsh conditions and isolation from civilization. Places where time and space become less rigid and defined – where minutes and hours and days melt together – about as close to a sense of the eternal as a human being can get in this life.
These are places of purification, places where the earth itself marshals its strength to push away all that would distract us from the reality of our humanity and God’s divinity. To remove from us all sense of control, of being anything other than creatures who live and breathe and exist only by the grace of God. Any pretense: of grandeur, of self-sufficiency, of notoriety, of excellence, is stripped away, by the stinging of sand or of waves.
St. Peter teaches us in our second reading about this kind of purification, true purification, of the soul. It is not, he says, a matter of removing dirt from the body.
In other words, it is not a matter of abstaining from all contact with earthly things as if they are what contaminate us and make us impure. After a good retreat, one should leave with his or her feet more firmly planted on the ground, not less. Dirt is good. Food, drink, companionship, are all good, very good. Holiness, St. Peter tells us, does not require that we live in celibate isolation atop an acropolis eating only rice cakes. (The most benign food I can think of ).
Instead, this is the description of purification that St. Peter gives us: purification, he says, comes by means of an appeal to God for a clear conscience. And this appeal is not made by us, but by Christ, and yet it is an appeal that lives and breathes within us who have been baptized.
Through baptism, each of us has received the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ that appeals to God on our behalf, that cries out, as St. Paul tells us “Abba, Father.” We carry his Spirit, the spirit that moves in the open desert, over the open sea, within us. It is the Spirit of Christ who emptied himself of everything, who took on the form of a slave for our sake. Who though he was in the form of God did not deem equality with God something to be demanded, but instead humbled himself and obediently accepted the cross.
And so we need not go to the desert, there need no longer be floods in order to find the Spirit, in order to find purification. Instead, the Spirit of Christ Jesus who is the source of all purification dwells within us, in the wilderness of the interior life.
We have begun our retreat of 40 days. Rather than seeking out sparse accommodations, we are called to find them within ourselves. Jesus tells us we do that by going home, going to our inner room, shutting the door, and praying in silence.
The Church instructs us all to work to simplify our environs during this time not because they are bad or inferior, but so that we can more fully retreat into the open sea, the open desert of the interior life of prayer.
I encourage you during lent to leave the television set off for a time, the radio in the car, the computer. To seek out places of silence, be they quiet churches or chapels, libraries, or hiking trails. To allow the spirit to drive you into the silence, into the sparse lands where he moves freely to instruct and purify our hearts.
We don’t need to choose between the open sea of the open desert in order to find healing and purification. The Spirit of Christ appeals to God for a clear conscience, for peace and freedom, from within interior deserts and oceans that are waiting to be explored by us during these 40 days.