My Lenten reflection is this: we like to talk about God calling us. But perhaps we should not like it so much. Being called by God is scary as all hell.
My reflection comes in light of a book I recently read: What Jesus Meant, by Garry Wills. The book is a life of Jesus. Chapter 1 opens with the Annunciation.
“For me,” Wills wrote, “the most convincing pictures or sculptures of the Annunciation to Mary show her in a state of panic….the most striking images occur in fourteenth-century paintings—by, for instance, Lorenzo Veneziano and the Master of the Cini Madonna—where Mary is made so faint by the angel’s words that she sways back and must grab a pillar to keep herself upright.”
Gabriel’s greeting (“Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you” –Luke 1:28) sure sounded nice. But Mary “was deeply shaken [dietarachthe],” according to Wills’ own translation of the Greek for 1:29. That definitely jibes with the paintings. He asks: “Did she know already how dangerous is such favor? God’s chosen people are commonly chosen to suffer.”
Wills also analyzes Jesus’ temptation in the desert. When Jesus fends off Satan’s offers of “bread and miracles and authority,” he is realizing he cannot rescue us with the ”cheap salvation” these things imply: “Jesus does not want to make life bearable, as a way of easing the path through time. He wants to make his followers leap outside of time, to see things in the stark reality of the Father’s judgment on those who blunt spiritual capacity with melioratives.”
This is Jesus’ vocation. And what an overwhelming one. Wills suggests that clashing with the Devil is a literary device to dramatize Jesus’ “fascination and revulsion” with his mission. Fascination and revulsion are the lot of those who are called. This is because you learn where the call will lead.
In high school and college, I encountered many teachers, counselors and ministers who stressed how wonderful it was to discover one’s calling. One was assured of “doing good while doing well.” We could be forgiven for thinking that God desired everyone to work vaguely defined yet sufficiently lucrative jobs, from which we would conveniently Facebook or Tweet the revolution while wearing really awesome fair-trade shoes. God, positive thinking, and career centers all conspired for our bliss.
I often stumbled over the Frederick Buechner quote that “the place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Rarely did I hear that the gladness had a shadow side. No one admitted that the world’s deep hunger, made slightly crazed by hypoglycemia, might devour you on sight.
In reality, God’s call is intrusive. It enters your life like a jagged piece of shrapnel. “The themes and conflicts that define our lives are often not of our own choosing,” Chris Hedges wrote in Losing Moses on the Freeway: The 10 Commandments in America. “We cannot pick our demons nor our angels.”
Being faithful to God’s intrusions in the light of the Gospel will require us to disobey authority, to defy the roar of the crowd. As a result, we may have to choose poverty. We may be called un-American, irrelevant, foolish, bleeding heart, menace to society, intrinsically disordered. Our own church may call us these things. We may experience the abandonment and violence that frequently accompany such epithets.
Our models include Mary, who was told by Simeon that “you yourself a sword will pierce” (Luke 2:35). They include Moses, that reluctant divine spokesman who stuttered, and Jeremiah, who got thrown down a well. They include Paul, who provides us with an exhaustive list of his beatings, stonings, shipwrecks, prison cells and narrow escapes (2 Corinthians 11:21-33). They include Jesus on the cross.
Resurrection is the final reality, and we experience flashes of it in this life. But we do not fully know resurrection until we depart from time, never to return. Until then, life–even and especially if we are fulfilling what we were made for–is difficult.
Lent teaches us this. Lent is not about endurance contests. It is about remembering that the good news of Easter morning had a context. Vocation always leads through death to new life. We set aside forty special, purple-colored days a year to consider what it means to drink that cup. We would be dishonest if we said that gazing upon the cup did not fill us with equal parts “fascination and revulsion.”