First Sunday in Lent
So, what’s feeding your soul these days? Take a moment. What’s nurturing your soul? What’s your diet like? Is it heart healthy? Soul-healthy? What are you “taking in,” imbibing, ingesting? Is it feeding you? Depleting you? Making you tired? Or are you starving? Running on fumes?
I’m not really talking about food here. I am, but I’m not. Food is an easy metaphor for something else. Didn’t Jesus once take bread and say, “Take, eat; this is my body”? (Matthew 26:26). And didn’t he take a cup of wine and say, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sin"? (Matthew 26:28). Bread and wine point to something, someone else.
And, yet, we know that food, food that we put into our mouths and chew and swallow and digest, actually feeds bodies as well souls. There’s “soul food,” of course, African-American cuisine originating in the American South; think of ham hock and black-eyed peas, collard greens, okra, fried Catfish, sweet potato pie. There’re other kinds of food that also feed our souls, food that reminds of our childhood, or a time around the table with family, food that gives us comfort. The number one comfort food in the American diet is grilled cheese sandwiches, followed by mashed potatoes, Mac and cheese, tacos, pizza, dumplings, baked ziti, and tomato soup.
Getting hungry? Just thinking about food, talking about food, the food we love, gets us hungry. Ready for brunch or lunch?
Now that I’ve got you thinking about food, I want you to think about being hungry. Put yourself in the wilderness. You’re there with Jesus. Led there, on purpose, by the Holy Spirit. You’ve been there in this wild, barren, dangerous place for forty-days and forty-nights—the Bible’s way of saying, a long time. And you’ve been fasting. No food. You had water; just enough to survive. No food. And, like Jesus, you’re “famished.” Now, stay there. In your famishment—just imagine for a moment what that feels like. Feel it in your stomach.
Because it’s there, in that feeling, in that moment, when the work begins, when deep spiritual discernment starts to take shape. It’s there, at the point of weakness, when we are most vulnerable, that we are most exposed to temptation. It’s also in those moments, in extremis, at the point of despair, the moment we are stretched to our limits, stretched to the breaking point, that an awareness of something else begins to emerge in us, an awareness of a deeper truth breaking through, the awareness of a deeper power becoming available to us. Yes, Jesus is tempted in a moment of weakness, but he also claims, in that exact same moment, a deeper truth that Satan has no power over.
This is where we begin the season of Lent—with Jesus in the wilderness. The journey starts here. The most profound, life-changing journeys of our lives always begin in the wilderness. As we know, it’s the Holy Spirit who sent Jesus into this wild and dangerous place—not to punish him or abandon him—but to train him, test him, prepare him, strengthen him for his life task, his calling, the purpose of his life. According to Matthew’s gospel, the tempter arrived at the end of Jesus’ forty-day fast, when he was “famished.” It doesn’t say that the tempter showed up throughout the forty-day period, but “afterwards” (4:2). The tempter showed up when Jesus was at his weakest.
Jesus is starving. Famished. Ravenous. Of course he is. You would be too. That’s when the seeds of doubt come. “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But Jesus answered, “It is written….” And where is it written? In Deuteronomy, where we find God saying to the Israelites, “Remember the long way that the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments. He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD” (Deut. 8:2-3).
God tests the heart. God tests our souls. Our hunger for bread becomes a symbol for a different kind of bread, such as manna. Our hunger for manna becomes a symbol for something that will truly satisfy our hunger, namely, the word of God. The word of God as bread doesn’t satisfy the hunger in our bellies, but the hunger in our souls, the hunger of our hearts for something more than food. Yes, we need food to live, to function. But we also need a different kind of food to satisfy the cravings of the soul, food that is truly heart healthy—the kind of food that brings our hearts to life and causes them to sing, filling hearts full of compassion and passion for justice, for the beautiful, the good, the holy; full hearts that lead us to reach out to our neighbor, to God, to ourselves in love. What’s feeding your heart? What causes your heart to sing?
Sometimes it takes being hungry to know what we’re really hungry for. Sometimes it takes a season of fasting to clarify what you’re really hungry for. In those moments, we might be tempted to satisfy our appetites with the wrong thing. We might think we’re hungry for bread, when what we’re really starving for is entirely something else. When we fast, things become clearer. If you’ve spent any time fasting, you know that prolonged fasts lead to greater sense perception and awareness. You know how your body changes when you give up dairy or sugar or alcohol or caffeine. Your cravings change. We become aware of our appetites when we’re hungry, especially when we’re ravenous.
Although ravenous for food, Jesus confessed a craving for a different kind of food—the nourishment that comes from the word of God. Jesus is referring to scripture here, the Hebrew Scriptures, not to the New Testament, of course. Jesus uses scripture in his response to the tempter—although, it must be noted that even the tempter is good at quoting scripture to Jesus. Jesus’ reference to the “word of God,” I think, also refers to something else. Yes the “word of God” is scripture, is a text. But remember what scripture is; remember what scripture does. Scripture is alive, it’s doing something, it’s active. Scripture conveys through words the word of God, that is, the divine voice, the message of God, the will of God, the hope and vision of God, the presence of God. The word is God and God is the word. It’s this word, word as God/God as word, that we hunger for. We hunger, not for a text—but for God. That’s what matters most. And so often in our lives, we think the hunger and cravings of our souls will be satisfied by turning stones into bread, turning material things into “bread,” materials things, such as money and everything that money can buy, into “bread.” And then we’re surprised when these cravings never satisfy. We’re not really hungry for bread—we’re hungry for God.
So, what’s feeding your soul these days? What’s nurturing your soul? What’s your diet like? Is it heart healthy? Soul-healthy? It’s easy to say what our stomachs hunger for, but our souls? What’s bringing you to life? What’s the source of your joy?
As we move through the wilderness of Lent, these are good questions to ask ourselves—good questions to pray about. In your prayer, ask God to help you answer these questions. It’s good to wrestle with them. Stay with them. Don’t resolve the tension too soon. Sit with them. Stay with your hunger. Stay in the wilderness—don’t worry, you’re not alone. We have forty days to sit and wait and listen and discover what—or who—nurtures our lives.
The great Spanish mystic, St. John of the Cross (1542-1591), wrote about his journey through the “dark night of the soul.” He discovered that while he was in the wilderness that he wasn’t alone. Even though all appeared to be night, there was something else hidden there, in the dark, there was something in the night. In his poem Cantar del alma que se huelga de conocer a Dios por fe (Song of the soul that rejoices in knowing God by faith), he tells us what he discovered there, “That eternal spring hidden” (“Aquella eternal fonte esta escondida”). It’s hidden, yet he knows what feeds his soul. He knows what gives him life. He knows what gives him light, as he says, “although it is the night.” He writes:
This eternal fountain hides and splashes
Within this living bread that is life to us
Although it is the night.
Hear it calling out to every creature,
And they drink these waters, although it is dark here
Because it is the night.
I am repining for this living fountain.
Within this bread of life I see it plain
Although it is the night.
Yes, bread. Yet, something more than bread. The bread of life.
Don’t be tempted by anything less.
 This is the translation of Seamus Heaney (1939-2013), from his poem “Station Island XI,” cited in Malcolm Guite, The Word in the Wilderness: A Poem a Day for Lent and Easter (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2014), 4-5.