This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.”And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’”as the prophet Isaiah said.
Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.
Today ends the last day of the Epiphany Season, commonly called Shrove Tuesday ,or, as familiar to most in North America Mardi Gras. A moveable commemoration is determined by Easter. The expression “Shrove Tuesday” comes from the word shrive, meaning “to absolve”. While many in the United States and elsewhere are enjoying the final night of the Carnival or Mardi Gras season, tonight is the night where we hear the call of John the Baptist saying, ““I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord!” Tonight we are called toward repentance.
It may seem strange to some, so close after the joyous celebration of the Epiphany season, to be called into repentance. It wasn’t two months ago that we witnessed the full presence of the Lord amongst us: the honoring of the Lord by the Three Magi, His baptism in the river Jordan by his cousin; Christ selecting Philip to join amongst the apostles, the beginning of his Galilean ministry and the subsequent selection of the other apostles, the casting out of the unclean spirit by the possessed man in the synagogue, and many other miraculous events.
During this time, we are drawn into the narrative of Jesus, an accomplished and evangelical preacher and miracle worker. We follow him as he selects his disciples and starts his earthly ministry. We walk with him, sharing in the wonder and awe of this charismatic who touches us to the core.
This past Sunday, we beheld him in full glory, climbing the mountainside with John, James and Peter to pray and meditate. After what would have been at least half a day’s trek. While climbing up this steep and dangerous mountainside, far removed from civilization as they know it, possibly praying along the way or talking about their ministry, Jesus stands before them glowing with a supernatural whiteness – at his side the great patriarch Moses and Elijah at his side. These sons of thunder and Peter struck down in awe before Jesus suddenly appears again as himself, the poor preacher from Nazareth. And now, the light grows dim, just a flash before our eyes before we are invited into the desert once again.
The period of Lent which starts tomorrow is a period of repentance. Now, for many this conjures images of self-denial, fasting, or at the very minimum just giving up some kind of enjoyment or vice. The Greek term often used for repentance in the Greek gospels is metanoia. Metanoia, far from covering one’s self in sack cloth simply means, ‘to change one’s mind’. After the holiday season and throughout Epiphany we’re focused on the external appearances of things and external activities. In the reading for today, John calls us to make straight the way of the Lord into our hearts and minds. Yet, how do we do this and what does it mean?
On an external level, moderate fasting can be healthy, yet when taken to extremes it puts us out of touch with our own bodily needs – the body in which the Spirit comes to sit. Anyone who’s been involved in heavy academic pursuits, long and irregular work schedules, or athletics knows how hard it can be to balance things – especially their spiritual life when things are too busy and one hasn’t eaten properly. It can also be a symptom of what some have termed spiritual pride – a self-righteous sense of being more holy than one’s neighbor well illustrated by the parable of the Pharisee and Tax Collector in Luke’s Gospel. If one is going to fast, how will it turn one’s focus on the path you’re making straight for the Lord to enter?
Another traditional practice is alms giving. Since the time of the apostles and to the present day charity is a great practice whether it be giving one’s time in volunteering or money to the church or organizations. Yet, if one feels compelled to give – especially in this tough economic climate where money and time are concerns- and can’t, that doesn’t help them set clear their path but can actually make a person feel worthless and like they’re not able to participate alongside their sisters and brothers.
While abstinence, fasting, prayer, repentance and service are all traditional Lenten practices, I would like to suggest something perhaps less traditional that is still in the spirit of the Season. Do something more and fine tune what you’re doing.
From birth until death each of us carries within themselves something to offer the world. For some, this is a propensity for music. If that’s the case, take this time to fine tune your talents, offer each practice session to God and your community. If it’s athletics, maybe work out a little bit harder or perhaps invite a friend who’s interested for improving their game or whatever physical activity they do. If it’s finances, maybe dedicate time to learning how to best use your money to benefit someone other than yourself and maybe teach others to do the same. If you’re a deeply spiritual person, maybe re-examine what’s working and what’s not in your practice, streamline it or find a new way to express your devotion and support others spiritually. There are many other examples that with a little bit of thought can be put into practice.
It is important, though, to also add a spiritual dimension to your activities. If you can, take some time for daily prayer and attend services with your own or other spiritual communities. Pay attention to what the Spirit is saying whether at work, in personal reading, or at church and see how you can make it apply to your life in this period and see if can be carried through the rest of the year. And, most importantly, be good to yourselves – don’t make comparisons between what you’ve chosen to do or not with that of other people, instead, rest in the knowledge of the transforming power of the Divine Beloved.