Written by Anna Adams Petrin, Lecturer in Religious Studies at Marywood University, Scranton, PA
I will announce the decree of the LORD:
The LORD said to me, “You are my Son.
It is I who have begotten you this day.
– Psalm 2:7
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
– Mark 1:9-11
Each year around the time of Lent, my Facebook newsfeed and Instagram stories begin to fill with people announcing that they are “leaving for Lent,” and articles from religious and non-religious sources alike make the rounds explaining why all these Christians are in the process of giving up something that they enjoy for roughly the next forty days. The emphasis repeated over and over again is one of discipline (the ancient word for this was askesis), and if we rely solely on this great renunciation, it can seem as though Christians have something against the created order or the material world. All of the focus on the discipline of Lent – whatever form that might take – can sometimes cause us to lose sight of the purpose of that discipline, and of the glorious Easter sunrise we are training our eyes to take in. So here, at the beginning of Lent, it can be helpful to “zoom out” and to contextualize this season within the wider Christian calendar, so that we can reorient ourselves toward the Christ that we are trying to follow by taking up these disciplines.
The Christian calendar allows us to walk, each year, through the story of Christ’s birth, life, death, and resurrection. Lent works as a connecting fast that sits between two of the Church’s major feasts: Epiphany and Easter. The origin of Lent is probably related to both of these other feasts. It is likely that the 40-day fast that we now celebrate developed in some parts of early Christianity as a way for new Christians, who had been baptized at Epiphany, to imitate Christ’s time in the wilderness after his own baptism (which used to be celebrated at Epiphany). In those contexts, the fast followed the feast, just as Christ’s journey into the wilderness followed the revelation of his identity at his baptism. Elsewhere in early Christianity, Lent developed as a period of imitating Christ’s time in the wilderness before celebrating baptisms at Easter. Over time, the feast of Lent came to be celebrated in the way we know it today.
Our Scripture passage links these two baptismal feasts of the Christian year. It first appears in the Psalms, Israel’s collection of hymns for worship. It then reappears in a moment of revelation at the very start of Jesus’ ministry. In this moment, Jesus is baptized by his cousin, John the Baptist, and as he comes up out of the water, a Trinitarian revelation is reported. The Gospels say that those standing by saw not only Jesus but also the Holy Spirit, descending in the form of a dove, and they heard the voice of the Father saying to Jesus, “You are my Son” (Mark 1:9-11, Matt. 3:13-17, and Luke 3:21-22). Directly following this revelation, Jesus enters the wilderness, fasts, and faces temptation in preparation for his ministry. Christ’s journey into the wilderness, then, is not a rejection of any of God’s lovely created order – not even a rejection of coffee, chocolate, or Facebook (though setting these aside are great disciplines!). Instead, Christ’s journey into the desert is born of his very identity – his identity as the beloved Child of God – and it prepares him for the vocation, or call, that is inherent in that identity.
This passage also appears a third time in the life of the Church: in early Christian baptism. The idea is implicit in the prayers that many of us use today, but in the early Church – especially in the East – this Psalm played a regular role in the celebration of Christian baptisms. Those baptisms attempted to imitate Jesus’ own, and they included both an anointing with oil (symbolizing the Christian’s inheritance of the Holy Spirit) and a quotation of Psalm 2:7 over the newly baptized Christian (“You are my child; today I have begotten you”).
Taken in this context – “between baptisms” – our own Lenten disciplines are not rejections of the created order, but rejections of distraction. And in this process of laying aside every distraction and allowing our focus to settle instead upon Christ our Lord, our “laying aside” becomes also a task of “taking up” and “taking on.” We take on the characteristics of the Savior that we follow. We take on the vocation of this Child of God who loved the world and gave his life for it. We take on the joy, grace, love, and peace of the Lord with whom we walk through the “desert” of Lent. Our spiritual world begins to take on the springtime hues of the warming world around us, and our hearts echo with the words of Isaiah: “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing” (35:1-2).
In short, if we take up the identities that we celebrate through baptism at Easter, when God says to us, “You are my child; today I have begotten you,” the dry path of discipline will become for us not a wandering in the desert, but a highway that leads us home to the house of our God.
In case you miss a day of our devotional, throughout the season of Lent, all of our devotional posts will be archived here.