The Good News of Jesus Christ was written to help Jewish people deal with an unspeakable disaster. In the Year 70, a three-year-long Roman siege of Jerusalem finally broke through its walls. The Empire’s soldiers killed tens of thousands of patriots who had fought for independence from Rome; they burned the Holy City to the ground; and they destroyed the Temple of Jehovah.
Out of this catastrophe, Mark wrote the first and, in my opinion, the most important Gospel. Mark showed his Jewish compatriots that after the death of their god and the end of their dreams of a new King David who might lead them to victory over the Empire, new life was still possible. Yes, there would be no new tribal god like Jehovah. Yes, there would be no new King David sitting on a throne in their now-destroyed capital Jerusalem. But the Risen Christ could arise in anyone, whether Jew or Greek, free person or slave. Anyone who accepted the gift of distributed sovereignty and divinity could enter this new life despite the destruction and death that had happened in Jerusalem.
Every Lent, we salute this amazing truth when we figuratively journey as followers of Jesus to Jerusalem. Like him, we take up our cross and walk to our fate; and every Easter, we feel joy as the Risen Christ arises within us again.
This year, our Lenten journey connects with today’s situation in Ukraine. Like the Jews of ancient Jerusalem, the people of Ukraine are trying to preserve independence from Russia; and like the Roman Empire’s view of Israel, the dictator of Russia says Ukraine is not a nation. Vladimir Putin is sparing no cost in his quest to restore the supposed glory of Russian’s faded Empire. He has even threatened nuclear annihilation, which would kill almost everyone on earth.
I spent a lot of energy in my 20s protesting nuclear weapons, and I consider the reality that our time on earth has been shadowed by thousands of nuclear weapons, which in any moment could end civilization through a planned or accidental exchange, as an ultimate shame.
Nevertheless, we can glory in solidarity and compassion because the human Spirit has enough love and beauty to host the Risen Christ regardless of our situation.
All of us are born of dust, and to dust we will return. All of us will die, whether tomorrow in a terrible war or at the end of a fulfilling life surrounded by loved ones. Regardless, we have all come from Love and to Love we will all return.
This was true when Mark wrote his Gospel at a time when there were only about 200 million people on the planet. It is true today when the world’s population is close to 8 billion; and it would continue to be true even if catastrophic fighting were to reduce the human population to just a few million.
The church made Lent a season of 40 days because of the story in which Jesus is tempted in the desert for 40 days. And although the rest of Lent is focused on the journey of Jesus and his friends from Galilee to Jerusalem, it makes sense to me that the church focuses first on this early episode in the gospels.
This is one place where I like Matthew and Luke better than Mark. Mark’s original story gives few details about this ordeal other than that Jesus was in the wilderness for 40 days with beasts and with angels who ministered to him, and that he was tempted by the devil. Both Matthew and Luke tell us what the temptations included.
They say the Devil promises food without toil, power over society, and safety in the face of life’s fragility. Happily, Jesus sees all of them as illusions. The devil can’t fulfill them, nor can Jesus accept them even though he is our pre-eminent symbol of God in human form.
God is not a Being who magically brings abundance, justice, or personal safety. With or without God, we are fated to work to provide the necessities of life; to struggle for justice without any guarantees of success; and to live with the constant threat of injury and the certainty of eventual death.
To start Lent with this reminder is to start the journey without illusions. I appreciate walking with fellow pilgrims during Lent on paths of faith, hope and love. But I don’t undertake the journey with a hope that we can avoid the difficulties of life. I do so in the hope that we will confront the realities of life in all their pain and joy.
Vladimir Putin, despite being perceived by many fascists here and around the world as a great Christian, has succumbed to the Devil’s temptations. He has stolen immense wealth and so thinks he has solved the problem of scarcity. He has surrounded himself with specially trained thugs and so imagines he will never die. And he views the former lands of the Russian Empire as his for the taking.
Accepting the devil’s illusions in this way is a set of terrible sins. Unfortunately, Putin is making many others pay for them – including thousands, and perhaps hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians, whom we fear will die.
But I am also glad that many people in the world have woken up to Putin’s devilish nature and have now turned against him. He may well destroy and conquer Ukraine, although I pray this does not happen. But even in that case, the resolve of so many people, especially of Ukrainians, would make this victory a hollow one. After many years of successfully supporting fascism inside and outside his country, I believe Putin has finally met a problem he cannot easily solve.
The war in Ukraine is as horrible as other violent conflicts — from Syria, to Yemen, to South Sudan. In all of them, we should support refugees, pray for peace, and work for a just world in which violence fades into the past.
Among these conflicts, the invasion of Ukraine stands out for me because one of the most prominent leaders of world fascism, Putin, has become the enemy of so many. Despite anger, sadness, and horror at the costs of the war, I am heartened by the resolve of many to stand for democracy, dialogue, and diplomacy. If the world can avoid an even greater war, and if the people of Ukraine can throw out the Russian invaders, I hope for a better future.
On the other hand, nothing seems certain in this crazy and wondrous life; and we don’t know what effect our actions might have, which is why I am glad to hear the words of our first reading from Steve Garnaas-Holmes who writes, “when we change our note, we change the whole chord.”
And so as Lent continues, I search for fellow pilgrims with which to walk, to protest, to pray, and to sing in joy. Together, let us walk towards the cross and beyond it towards paths of resurrection.
May it be so. Amen.