The season of Lent isn’t what it used to be. It has drifted off course. It has become what the familiar Ash Wednesday scriptures set it up to be, a season “of darkness and gloom” calling us to return to God “with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning” (Joel 2:1-2). This sackcloth-and-ashes version of Lent goes back to St. Augustine in the fourth century. It’s the version most of us know, and it may be effective in scaring hell out of people, but it’s probably not the best way to invite us back to a loving God and prepare us for the new life of Easter.
There’s a better version of Lent, one that’s about 3,000 years old, as old as the earliest Hebrew scriptures. It’s a version found in the tradition Jesus knew and in what Jesus taught. It doesn’t start with how bad and broken we are; it starts with how good and perfect we are, how inherently pleasing to God. It doesn’t presume we are born in original sin; it presumes we are born into original blessing. It doesn’t look to a sacrificial lamb to pay the price for restoring our relationship with God; it looks to a spiritual midwife who will help us give birth to the divine spirit that’s been in us all along, who will help us expose and express the God image that’s written in our DNA.
Occasionally we see that divine image in someone else, an image of human perfection and divine glory so outrageously exceptional, we can’t imagine we could ever be like that. It’s how heroes are created, or movie stars, or the saints of our faith. It may have been why his disciples kept wanting to call Jesus the “Messiah,” because they saw something in him they thought they could never be. And it may be why he kept telling them to be quiet about it. He didn’t want people to get the wrong idea about him, the idea that he was something they could never be.
Maybe that’s why Nicodemus came to Jesus that night (John 3:1-17). Maybe he saw something in Jesus that resonated with the same something in himself, but he had no words even to ask the question he didn’t know he wanted to ask. He could only spill out, “we know that you are a teacher who has come from God,” for no one could point to God the way you do if God were not in you (v. 2). Maybe Nicodemus saw in Jesus what any of us might see if only we could believe our eyes; maybe Jesus shows us ourselves, our true selves, our selves as we are in our hearts, the self that’s waiting in us to live.
In the movie The Lion King, the lion cub Simba flees his homeland when his father Mufasa, king of the Pride Lands, is murdered and the kingdom seized by Mufasa’s younger brother Scar. Although Simba is the rightful heir to the kingdom, he knows nothing about who he really is or about the life he is meant to live. He knows only that his father died a long time ago.
One night Rafiki, a wise mandrill, tells Simba his father still lives. Simba doesn’t believe it, so Rafiki offers to show Simba’s father to him, and he has Simba gaze into a pool of water. “Look down there,” he says to the young lion. Simba is disappointed. “That’s not my father,” he says; “that’s just my reflection.”
“Look harder,” Rafiki replies. “You see, he lives in you.” Slowly the ripples in the water transform Simba’s face into the image of his father. “Father?” the young lion says. Mufasa replies, “Simba, you have forgotten me.” “No. How could I?” Simba protests. And Mufasa says to him, “You have forgotten who you are, and so you have forgotten me. Look inside yourself, Simba. You are more than what you have become. Remember who you are.”
The problem we deal with in Lent is not original sin; it’s original amnesia. When we lose sight of our true selves and forget who we really are, we lose our way, and like prodigal children we can wander far from home, far from the kingdom where we are meant to live. Lent is a season to remember who we are, to remember the way home, to remember the life for which we are created. It’s the life we may still live when the shell that surrounds us cracks open and we finally step into the life we are meant to live.
A colleague of mine, Matt Lincoln, rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Buffalo, pointed out in his sermon last week (“Image of God”) that one of the most significant temptations of our day is “the temptation to ignore the image of God in other people.” A lot of our attacks on others, he said, seem to come from not seeing the image of God in them. Well, how could we see the image of God in others if we don’t see it in ourselves? Remember who you are (you are more than you have become), and remember who the person is on the other side of the argument.
Origen, a bishop of the early church, advised his priests not to preach to the people. Imagine, he told them, that hovering above each person is that person’s angel. Preach to the angels, he said, and the people will rise to meet you there. Imagine if we were to be free of our spiritual amnesia and remember who we are, if we were to remember our angel, the image of God that’s in us. And imagine if we were to see in each person we meet that person’s angel, and if we were to rise and meet angel to angel, true self to true self.
Questions for reflection
- What do you think Nicodemus was seeking when he came to Jesus? What are you seeking that draws you to Jesus?
- The gospel never tells us that Nicodemus found what he was seeking, but he stayed close to Jesus right through to Jesus’ burial. How is it that Nicodemus’s unanswered question of unsatisfied quest might have kept him close to the one who seemed to embody what he was looking for? What is the power of attraction that draws you to something you can’t quite identify or name?
- Jesus says you can’t enter or even see the kingdom of God unless you are born from above. What does being born “from above” mean to you? How would you describe the results in you of being born from above?
- Can being born from above be the result of something you do, and to what extent might it be so? Or is it pure, unmerited gift? (a) If it’s the result, at least partially, of something you do, what must you do to bring it about? What does this suggest to you about the nature of God? (b) If it’s pure, unmerited gift, does God offer it to everyone or to only some? What does this suggest to you about the nature of God?