Our Lady couldn’t breathe yesterday. This week, neither could Jesus.
No week is more fitting for a historic cathedral to be scorched from the inside out. On Friday, we’ll gaze at the ruins of Christ’s body—pierced, torn, and unable to breathe. The world was set ablaze. Jesus, whose body was the Temple of God, was gutted of everything. He was thirsty, but could hold no water. This was a God hollowed of God as he cried out “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?”
Holy Week isn’t about a God who saves us from pain, but one who enters the fire and walks alongside of us.
What did we see when we watched Notre Dame bursting into flames? The loss of history? A God looking for vengeance on a corrupt Catholic Church or an indictment on a country’s secularism? I have no emotional attachment to the cathedral or immersion in French history, so I saw only the truth of our world: its fragility. Our most incredible accomplishments and cultural treasures are petals on dandelions. One small flame and a gust of wind and only a stem remains shooting from the ground, wafting in the breeze. Nothing gets out of life unscathed.
For he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.
All around the world people, not just Christians, are left wondering, “Can these bones live?” It’s not only about Notre Dame, but our world and all that’s in it—our transient accomplishments, our broken systems of oppression, failing churches, our dried up lives. When we look at Notre Dame, we look in the mirror. We can rise to the heavens, enshroud ourselves with gold, layer on bulges of muscle—but we’re still bones.
What does God do with bones?
Ezekiel is some help, here. He prophesied during a time of great suffering, when his nation was stripped to the bone and their temple was in ruins. Then, he had a vision that he was taken to a deep valley, engulfed in bones. Each set of bones a person with a family, a story, a heart that beat with passions and dreams. Now, their histories are buried in the dirt.
The Israelites can't see beyond the death, but God sees a frame for re-creation. And God calls Ezekiel to preach to the bones. Flesh begins to wrap around the bones. Veins carry the blood throughout the body. Ligaments connect bones. Muscles move. The problem is that there is no breath. Ezekiel preaches again, this time he asks the ruach—the breath, the wind, the spirit—to come into the bodies. This is the same ruach that hovers over the water at creation, the same breath that fills the dirt and creates life, the same Holy Spirit prophesied by Joel. And the bones stood on their feet.
“You shall know that I am the Lord when I open your graves and bring you up from the grave. I will put my Spirit in you and you will live.”
Christians know what God can do with a large chunk of collagen and a good breath of air. This is why Catholics ran inside the scorching church to save morbid relics like someones tibia, molars, and another’s locks of hair—an inmate's crown of thorns. Churches with attached cemeteries will agree: bones make for great buttresses and gravestones are the best foundations. It's strange, but we believe a new heart can be placed in their shell.
What did we see when we looked at Notre Dame? Did we see Jesus?
The church helps tells the story of France, but part of the church's story is a crucified Lord. Notre Dame displayed theological might and awe inspiring beauty, but now there is weakness. This is Jesus. The humbled one found in the poor, the ordinary, the groaning, and burning world. Can his bones live? Despite the towering flames and the ashes, an empty cross shines, pumping light throughout the haze and the darkness of death. God’s no stranger to crosses. After all, Jesus is a carpenter who is particularly skilled with beams of wood.
The cross is a promise: God will blow away the smoke, pick up the dust, and breathe into it. Life emerges again. Not just for ancient cathedrals, but for all of us.
The Church calls it resurrection.
I like to win. Or, maybe it’s more accurate to say that I hate to lose. Regardless of what takes precedence, I’ve left behind a long history of holes in walls, Nintendo power cords yanked from the wall, thrown remote controls, and outstanding grudges. I’m a relatively peaceful person, but nothing turns me into the Incredible Hulk like a good competition.
My passion to win was imparted to me at an early age—possibly through my mom’s umbilical cord. Some families can play games with each other and have fun, though that’s a mystery. No one cries or flips over a table? Sounds boring. I learned to leave it all on the Monopoly board—Boardwalk or bust.
Competitions are a zero sum game. Look, there’s a scoreboard. Why do we keep score if it’s about effort? Unfortunately, I’ve internalized the reverse—why play if we’re not keeping score? Play is intrinsically good and it’s important to have fun, but it’s also true that winning increases my chances of having fun. I blame it on dopamine and genetics.
My extended family visited us one Christmas to celebrate Jesus and also to confirm who was the best at World Cup ’94 on Super Nintendo. My brother and I had adequate time to hone our digital soccer skills enough to beat our uncles and cousins. But after one day of losing, my uncle stayed up all night until he found a glitch in the game that supplied him a goal with every shot. The next day he was merciless.
My daughter, Eden, has inherited our original sin. She turns everything into a competition: cars at a stoplight, the ladder at the playground, ballet class (yes, it’s possible). Never mind that her competitors haven’t been informed of the contest. Their ignorance makes it easier to win.
We participated in a family 5-k last weekend, which I realize makes us look like ‘one of those’ annoying families that also eats avocado toast. After half of a mile Eden threw herself on the asphalt because we were losing to a lot of people, many of whom appeared very un-athletic. I told her that losing was ok because we’re trying our best. I didn’t believe it. We passed a few people and she called them ‘slow pokes’ under her breath. She is three years old. What can I say? It’s in our blood.
I don’t apologize for our family foible; maybe it’s an evolutionary advantage. Human beings are wired for self-preservation, after all, and it’s possible that our family wired a little tighter. I hope to raise a strong girl who’s not afraid to take on a boy in a footrace and later, challenge one for a job. Work hard, train long, be passionate. Take pride in hard-fought wins because our country doesn’t need more self-deprecating women. But squash out the competitive spirit and you might also repress intrinsic goods like passion and perseverance, which can be mobilized for goodness.
Paul uses competitive imagery to describe the Christian life: running a race, fighting the good fight, and training in righteousness. Not to mention he also tells the Corinthians that he beats his body to make it his slave, which is some intense training for Jesus. Paul calls the Philippians his joy and crown, which is an image of victory. He tells them that he strains forward to what lies ahead and pressed on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call.
In other words, competition finds a better shape with the right virtues and a proper finish line. The Latin etymology reminds us that the word literally means to ‘strive together’. What if I treated Christianity with the urgency of a race that might be lost? Worked out generosity like my biceps? Called my community my crown and joy?
Unfortunately, most Christians are satisfied with a participation medal.
On the other hand, I know the shadow side of competition all too well. Losing is a form of dying. When the basketball rolls around the rim during the last second of a basketball game tempting a win or loss, we hang in the balance between life and death, heart beating erratically and hands shaking until the basketball gods make the final call.i Is it possible to go through the seven stages of grief over a basketball game? Yes. It’s the death of the season and a relationship to a team. When Duke loses I blame the referees, sleep late, wake up in denial, and ultimately curse the Tarheels.
If you’re not careful, a loss can be the death of your identity. That same little voice that creeps in to tell me that I’m better than everyone else, won't hesitate to call me worthless. In Chariots of Fire, the Olympic runner Harold Abrahams said that “[I have] ten lonely seconds to justify my whole existence.” I get that. I’m not nearly as good at soccer as I was ten years ago. My legs don’t move as fast and the cocky eighteen year olds move past me with a smirk. If I’m not the best, then who am I really? Beloved. But that’s hard to accept when I’m on the ground with a cramp in my calf.
Sniders are a perceptive people, keenly aware of how we appear to others. This means we’re prideful. So here’s what I tell myself: value isn’t an accomplishment. Human beings have the propensity to create scoreboards out of about anything—the size of houses, posts on facebook, red letters on the top of a graded paper. It looks like a lot of people are winning life, and we can get jealous, but many of them aren’t even competing. Regardless, life isn’t a competition that can be won and lost. We all die regardless of how many victories we've accrued on earth.
This is why losing can be good: it exposes our limits. It may even bring relief. There was a moment in a high school when our soccer team finally lost in the quarter finals of the state playoffs. I punched a locker, went to sleep, and woke up relieved. The pressure was off. Thank God. We don’t have to be the best, which is good because it's actually impossible. We are creatures; not saviors. Every crown put on a human head is a crown on a lump of dirt.
In other words, our aspirations must be tempered by humility. Now, humility doesn’t mean thinking less of yourself, or even thinking of yourself less, it means thinking of yourself properly—dependent and in relation to God. All of our accomplishments are not our own, but they’re gifts of grace—unearned and undeserved, given to us from God and others. Not one of us is self-made.
In a different scene of Chariots of Fire, Eric Liddell says, “I believe God made me for a purpose, but He also made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure.” When you compete, whose pleasure do you feel? This outlook strikes me as the kind of humility that will afford us the ability to compete without slipping into self-loathing or becoming intolerable to others. Laughing helps, too. Always laugh.
I’ve mellowed since I was eighteen, which means that no one has called me a jerk in some time. I’ve not stopped keeping score, but I do try to look at the right scoreboards. Now, this is likely attributed to maturity. But I also want to think that it’s grace making me more Christ-like. Jesus wasn’t much of a winner by our standards, unless he set out to get a crown of thorns. What does it profit to gain the world if you lose your soul? The exception was fishing; he always knew where to throw the net. Otherwise, Jesus tried to teach us that we win by losing. He said that the ones struggling at the back of the pack are the ones who are really out front. It all depends on where you place the finish line. And maybe the real finish line is sanctification, or transformation of the world into Jesus’ image.
Still, Jesus could get fairly competitive. He tells us that the widow who gives up two mites is winning. One found coin is worth more than the ones never lost. Jesus says he leaves the ninety-nine in search of the one that got away. He means to be all in all and I’m not sure he’ll stop competing until he is. After all, he is the Lord.
i. Lincoln Harvey makes this observation
Saint Augustine opens his Confessions by asking whether we pray in order to know God or whether we must know God in order to pray. How could we pray to a God we don’t know? But how could we know God unless we’ve prayed?i
It’s a paradox.
The head and heart are mysteriously united—a hypostatic union that’s unclear where one begins and the other ends. Does your heart shape your thinking? Or, does your thinking shape your heart? Somehow they must work together. For example, I know that this pork sandwich isn’t doing my cholesterol any favors, but I have no heart to change this dirty habit. Neither gets the job done alone. Unfortunately, even if I had the knowledge and the will to change, I’d also need a pork eaters anonymous support group.
There’s a wedding between our heads and our hearts throughout Scripture. “What’s the greatest commandment?” the Pharisees asked Jesus. “Love God,” Jesus said. That’s not an original thought. Moses said this when he gave the word of God to the people: “Love God with all of your heart, soul, and strength.” Jesus quotes this verse to the Pharisees, but adds a fourth component to make sure we don’t constrain love: “Love God with all of your heart, soul, strength, and mind.” In other words, love with your whole person because otherwise love isn't possible.
Lent is notorious as the season where Christians try to redirect our hearts to God by not eating chocolate and drinking booze. The theory is that if you can find a way to fix the heart, then the rest will take care of itself. And most Lenten disciplines get there through the stomach. Sometimes this works. But faith isn’t just practiced; it’s also learned. It sounds obvious, but we meditate on Jesus to become more like Jesus. Turns out that we should also get to the heart by going through the head.
Historically, Lent was a time of catechesis to teach new converts the faith, which included spiritual discipline and theological formation. The early Christians fasted, but they also gathered under the instruction of their bishops and dwelled on the mystery of Christ’s two-natures, divine and human. Finally, these new Christians woke up as the sun rose on Easter morning and took off their clothes (how much more liberated can you get?) and their old lives to be drowned and raised with Christ--a death and resurrection of heads and hearts.
I should mention, by the way, that this is repentance. Repentance is a buzz word during Lent, as it should be, both slightly embarrassing and crucial to our faith. But if we reclaim the Greek ‘metanoia,’ we remember that repentance is a simple and practical word that means to ‘change your mind.’ Repentance means that we’ve been walking in the wrong direction, but then something changed our minds and we’ve decided to walk a new path. I’ve already repented of this essay a number of times—changed the direction, deleted great sentences, and started a new trail by putting one word in front of the other. We're all better for it.
How will you change your mind this Lent?
Today’s church has done a great job shaping hearts during Lent, but we’d do well to set aside time to love God with our minds. Most of us come to faith through words, many of them written down. My hunch is that many Christians are spiritual, but illiterate. Or, if we’re not illiterate, then we’re stuck in the same theologies we learned in Vacation Bible School. This is about as unhealthy as believing that food hasn’t progressed since the birth of McDonalds. We should always question our theological inheritance. I often hear parishioners boast that they’ve not read a book in thirty years and I learn something about our discipleship. In the Land of Oz, we'd be the scarecrows with hearts, but no brains.
Maybe we’re still retreating from the Enlightenment—afraid to ask difficult questions because they might destroy our finely sculpted piety. You mean to tell me that the earth is four and a half billion years old? Then again, maybe we’ve wrongly assumed that Christianity is absorbed via oxygen in our country. Conversely, it’s possible that the administration of good catechesis has declined because of the pitiful number of adult baptisms. There’s an even better chance that we’re just lazy followers of Jesus. And we’re failing to love God with our whole selves.
There’s a case to be made that we're all called to be life-long theologians, because we love God by thinking about God. Now, that doesn’t mean we’ll be paid for it, but that’s no excuse not tinker with new ideas (after all, most of us are not dentists and we still brush our teeth). Don't you long to know more about your beloved? I love my wife and kids with all my heart and so I hope to learn something new about them every day—still, the mystery has not been fully plumbed. When Socrates said, ‘The more I know, the more I realize I know nothing,’ he could have been talking about women. Or, children. And also, God.
God is greater than that which can be conceived. Whenever we say ‘God,’ we’ve already misspoken. And so we speak of God with great care, admitting that we’re just children scrambling for words and looking for better ones. It doesn’t matter how great our intelligence or I.Q, because we can love God with our minds and still not graduate from pre-k. After all, we have the hardest curriculum. Class is never dismissed. You have permission to monitor my continuing education allowance—if I’m not buying and reading new books, tell my bishop that I’m not following Jesus.
For example, the doctrine of the Trinity reminds us that we’d have a better chance of reaching the end of the universe than arriving at God. God is not like us. Rather, God is a mystery to be savored, not a question that can be answered. Those of us who worship God with the mind rise eternally ‘through ever higher regions towards the Transcendent.’ii
That’s beautiful. Wait, now my heart is kicking into gear.
Here’s the point: loving with our minds is not a means to an end. Nor, is it an academic pursuit or about getting the right definition of God. Rather, it’s about being pulled into God’s arms. Dwelling on what’s beautiful. Loving words because they deliver us to the feet of the eternal Word and then, unite us with God. Many days I learn something new and I don’t even have the opportunity to use it! That's ok. Loving with the mind is an end in itself—worship.
One last thing: the word Lent is partly derived from the Anglo Saxon word Lenten, which means ‘Spring,” but also forms the root for our word ‘lengthen.’ Lent begins when the days begin to lengthen and the darkness wanes. Coincidentally, Christians lengthen their spiritual lives by stretching their brains and stomachs. The sun casts light on a people who dwell in night—the darkness of the heart and mind.
I wonder how you will lengthen your mind. How would you describe the Apostle’s Creed? What makes a Methodist different than a Baptist (other than the amount of water used)? Here’s a list of great Lenten disciplines: read Scripture and tradition, listen to someone who believes differently, have lunch with a Muslim. These practices will challenge and deepen your own convictions. It will help to shape your heart—dreams, goals, purposes, and being. And in turn, you will have worshiped.
This Lent, I made a commitment to study Scripture and challenge myself with new thinkers. It’s an alternate means of repentance—an acknowledgement that I don’t have all the truth. I'm not God. By the end of the season, I hope I’ll have changed my mind. Walked a new path. I still won’t understand resurrection on Easter morning, but I’ll relish in the mystery with my head and heart.
Even better, I’ll have spent forty days loving God.
i. Augustine Confessions Book I.I
ii.Gregory of Nyssa Sermon 8; On the Song of Songs
In college, I was assigned a three day detox fast as an assignment for my yoga course. Don’t judge me; I had tight hamstrings and a lot of stress. Detoxing is something spiritual people to do get rid of harmful toxins in the body. I still don't know what a toxin is, except that it must ultimately cause cancer and premature death. We had two options for this detox: three days of water mixed with apple cider vinegar, lemon, and cayenne pepper. Or, three days of ingesting fruit. I went to Piggly Wiggly and cleared out the fruit aisle. I ate mounds of fruit—baked apples for appetizers and frozen bananas for desert. The detox worked, well, because of fiber. Fruit has a lot of fiber.
I’ve not detoxed since because I was miserable without pork and ice-cream. I craved bread—sourdough with a thick crust and tangy chew. And I went to straight to Panera when the clock struck the seventy-second hour. Fasting is difficult because desire arises from abstinence. Prohibition creates longing, which is psychology 101 and the reason why I want Chick-Fil-A on Sunday.
Why would anyone fast? Why would anyone voluntarily suffer? It goes against every impulse in my body. I love food. I plan my days around when I’m going to eat. Fasting is best placed in between meals.
We are an anti-fasting people living in a culture of fast food and Google and Amazon Prime. John Ortberg calls it the Cookie Monster philosophy: “See cookie. Want cookie. Eat cookie.” We also live in a culture of overconsumption. On the Fourth of July, no one holds a fasting competition. We have hot dog eating competitions because nothing screams, “America” like fifty hot dogs. When there’s a crisis in my life, or in the church, I overindulge.
It never works.
This is why Lent is so necessary, and also difficult and rewarding. For forty days we become like the Israelites who wandered in the wilderness for forty years waiting on their daily deliverance of manna before they finally arrived at the land of milk and honey. Lent helps us realize that we become healthier by becoming dependent, vulnerable, and needy. It's a deeply un-American season.
Christians typically begin the season by remembering that Jesus was hurled into the wilderness to fast at the start of his ministry by the Spirit (not Satan). If I’m going to fast, then the Spirit better hurl me into the wilderness, too.
In the larger narrative, Jesus was just baptized. Now, he’s in the desert. It’s not punishment; it’s preparation. Water and wilderness go together. Think of the Israelites passing through the Red Sea into the desert or Noah wading on the waves of the wilderness. God often uses scarcity to prepare, or reform, or educate his people. The point is that Jesus is in the wilderness, like Israel before him, and God is shaping his heart for something important.
Satan, which means the Enemy or the Adversary, is there waiting in the wilderness with temptations. Satan is easy to caricature: red suit, pitchfork, horns. But evil doesn’t look like that. The Adversary is the nagging the voice of reason inside your head: “Hey, you’re hungry; that’s a good thing. Turn the stone into bread. No one will ever know.” He’s got a good point. There’s nothing wrong with food; we have five or six taste buds that prove it. Let me get another piece of that sourdough.
Self-deception is so easy.
I’ve heard it said that Jesus’ first temptation isn’t about eating. The real temptation is to be full, or to never lack. It’s the temptation to be a slave to our appetites and to have every desire met. Think of the voice that tells you that you’re entitled to whatever you want: happiness, another five dollar coffee, a better job because you've been working so hard. Everything exists for your pleasure—especially the five dollar coffee.
Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness is meant to sound like Eden. Remember Adam and Eve? They are in the garden with everything they need. Then, this conniving serpent says, “You know what? You can actually have more. There is one thing that God is hiding from you. Go for it. Take a bite.” You know what? He's right. A little more won’t hurt. Until it does. When you’re always fully satisfied, you may fool yourself into thinking you can actually save yourself. You will never die. You can be a god. Then again, good luck digging yourself out of a grave.
Jesus knows this and so he cites Scripture, “The human being is not nourished by bread only, but by every word that comes out of God’s mouth.” The truth is that we’ll never be full, unless God becomes our bread. Buying new clothes secretes endorphins in our brains, but it doesn’t satiate our souls. Jesus realizes that if he had bread, he’d be hungry the next day. If he had a beer, he’d be thirsty again. But learning to be satiated with the word of God, learning to feed on the bread of heaven, means he’ll never be hungry again. Jesus’ fasting foreshadows something that he will say later in John’s Gospel: “I am the bread which comes down out of heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die.”
Here’s the point: “After fasting forty days and forty nights, [Jesus] was hungry” (Matthew 4:2).
If the point of fasting is hunger, then what are we hungry for?
Are we hungry for Jesus?
In college, that fruit fast was meant as a detox, to clear me out. Spiritual fasting operates the same way—it clears us out and reveals the things that control us. We are more than a collection of appetites to be satisfied and our desires have to be disciplined or they become our gods. Saint Augustine put it like this: “God is always trying to give good things to us, but our hands are too full to receive them.”i
I faithfully participate in some fast for 40 days ever Lent. One year I swore off coffee. Know that smell of freshly ground beans? It’s the smell of Satan. Other times I’ve given up Facebook or social media. I’ve fasted from food on Fridays with the Catholics and become a vegetarian for forty days. I've never enjoyed it. Not once. But here’s the silver lining: when I’m done with the fast, I come out different. Stronger. Prayerful. A better heart. Others have said that we fast to feast on God.
Jesus tells his people this in the Sermon on the Mount:
“Your Father who sees [your fasting] in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:1-18)
When you fast you might drop a size in your jeans and more importantly, become holy. Each time your stomach rumbles, your heart rumbles, too. Self-denial draws us out of ourselves into God and others. Think of the others who are forced to fast, simply because there is not enough food. Why do we have so much, after all? If you give up Instagram, then you might notice that your worth is not based upon the number of people who ‘like’ a photograph. Rather, your worth is that you are Beloved, created in God’s image.
Fasting is not meaningless suffering or martyrdom. The reward is a transformed heart. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus is not only worried about your actions, what you do, but he’s also concerned about your inner life. The heart is the center of your being. What comes out of you proceeds from the heart—all of your actions and intentions. Change the rhythm of your heart and you will also change your life.
One Jewish manual says that fasting works because it makes our bodies slow down so that our synapses will not click and our brains will not process quite as quickly.ii We physically force ourselves to move slower and to draw our eyes inward to the things that truly nourish. Notice what controls you. Be more mindful of God’s presence. Pay attention to those who are hungry and be grateful for God’s provision.
In other words, become hungry for God.
i.Augustine City of God
ii. Lauren Winner Mudhouse Sabbath