Lenten Vulnerability

In need of mercy, and in need of experiencing want
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A man walks through Pflugerville, Texas, in a neighborhood that had no electricity, February 15, 2021 (CNS photo/Bronte Wittpenn, Austin American-Statesman, USA Today Network via Reuters).

Last November, my husband and I, eager to get out of our Los Angeles apartment during the pandemic, ventured to Big Bear Mountain to camp for the very first time. We were so excited at the prospect of being in nature that we forgot to check the weather. We assumed it would be cold only at night, but when we arrived we found ourselves surrounded by snow. We considered turning back, but after being in lockdown so long, we decided to stay and give it a shot. It was numbingly cold, and as evening turned into night we heard howling in the distance. That’s when we turned in. My husband slept like a log. I kept waking up in a panic just to make sure we were still alive. 

On the first Sunday of Lent, we hear the Gospel account of the temptation of Jesus. In this liturgical year, the Gospel of Mark briefly says: “The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan. He was among wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him.” Unlike Matthew and Luke, who walk us through the various temptations, Mark leaves us guessing how Jesus was tempted. Mark assumes that his audience understands the hardships one would face in harsh weather, exposed to the elements without any protection. I wouldn’t compare my one night in Big Bear to Jesus’s spiritual, ascetic journey, but I was definitely praying to God that our gear would function as advertised. As I’ve been following news of the devastation wrought by winter weather in Texas, I’ve thought a lot about being cold and unprepared. Millions of people in Texas are without electricity, heat, food supplies, and potable water. What of those experiencing homelessness, and refugees and immigrants at the border? Catholic spiritual tradition speaks of the closeness of God to those in these conditions. We believe God to be constant; therefore, the closeness has more to do with our inclination toward God and the degree to which others serve the one in need, in solidarity. We are vulnerable before God and dependent on each other. I am not saying that God is responsible for these circumstances, but that within these circumstances there is grace.

We are vulnerable before God and dependent on each other.

Lenten practices are intended to create moments of vulnerability before God. People say they feel alive when they go camping. Perhaps it’s because it reminds us of our mortality, our connection with all of creation, and by association our dependence on God. The forty days in the desert put us in touch with our most basic human needs and desires so that we can orient our hunger, thirst, and need for protection and shelter away from the sun and bitter cold toward God. That Jesus is driven by the Holy Spirit indicates a choice. The Spirit moves us and we respond to the Spirit’s invitation to make ourselves vulnerable and open to the grace of God. When we make Lenten promises to give something up, our choice should be one that helps us pause and consider that God is greater than our trivial need—that we should instead look to God as the source of our deepest one. In that moment we enter into a holy space where our humanity humbles itself before the Divine. It also puts us in touch with the experience of those in need. In our Lenten spiritual practice, if we consider the plight of others and act in mercy, then we discover that our relationship with God reaches new levels of intimacy. We love God and we love with God. 

This past Thursday, in the midst of the catastrophe in Texas, Brownsville Bishop Daniel Flores tweeted, “I am granting a general dispensation in the Diocese from the law of Lenten abstinence from meat tomorrow, February 19, 2021. Many families in the Diocese will have no other option except to eat what they have.” He continued: “The law does not intend to add hardship to what is already a situation of great hardship for many. Those who can observe the discipline may, of course, do so. I suggest for the intentions of those suffering at this time.” The communal practice of abstaining and fasting is dependent on our freedom to make a choice. The knowledge of their human frailty can seem inescapable to the poor, the hungry, and those suffering injustice and tragedy. To impose any more of the same would be physical and spiritual violence. Regardless of our condition, discernment is necessary in the Lenten journey. Some of us are in desperate need of receiving mercy and justice, some of us are in desperate need of experiencing want. Jesus was ministered by the angels in the desert, so I’m inclined to believe that our Lenten journey needs both.

Claudia Avila Cosnahan is the Mission & Partnerships Director for Commonweal and an instructor and consultant for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

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