Over the next 40 days, we join our Lord on the via dolorosa, the road of suffering, which culminates in his agonizing death on the Cross. We join him in fasting, in prayer, and in almsgiving.
But what if Jesus doesn’t want us to join him? What if he refuses our Lenten sacrifices and says to us: “I will take no bull-calf from your stalls, nor he-goats out of your pens” (Ps. 50:9)? All too easily, the thought may creep in that Jesus ought to be pleased that I join him in my fastidious Lenten endeavors. Let’s call this temptation the Lenten presumption.
Saint Irenaeus teaches that such Lenten presumption flips things around. It is not God who needs us, but we who need him. The second-century Bishop of Lyons tells us that God did not “stand in need of our service when He ordered us to follow Him; but He thus bestowed salvation upon ourselves.” Jesus does not need us to follow him in his suffering; instead, we desperately need him to stick close to us. We do not do him a service by joining him in our Lenten practices. We, not he, are the beneficiaries of Lent.
Shrove Tuesday serves as a red triangle with an exclamation mark in it. It is a warning signal for the road up ahead. Shrove Tuesday reminds us that Jesus does not need us to follow him on the path that leads to his death.
The psalmist does not fall into the Lenten presumption. He knows that he cannot journey to God and that instead he needs God to journey to him: “O Lord, do not forsake me; be not far from me, O my God. Make haste to help me, O Lord of my salvation” (Ps. 38:21–22).
The entire psalm is a rebuke to our Lenten presumption. The ominous Latin inscription serves as another red triangle—Domine, ne in furore. The English comes pretty close: “O Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger; do not punish me in your wrath” (38:1). But the English words anger and wrath do not carry quite the same punch as the Latin furor. In fury and indignation, God has turned into the psalmist’s enemy: “For your arrows have already pierced me and your hand presses hard upon me” (38:2).
We need Jesus; he does not need us. “There is no health in my flesh,” we confess, not once but twice (38:3, 7). “My iniquities overwhelm me” (38:2). “My wounds stink and fester by reason of my foolishness” (38:5). The first half of the psalm is a lengthy, emotional acknowledgement that we have failed to follow Jesus and that we need him to come and rescue us.
Before we embark on following Jesus, we need to rid ourselves of our Lenten presumption: We need to confess our sins. “I will confess my iniquity,” states the psalmist, “and be sorry for my sin” (38:18).
Shrove Tuesday comes from the Latin scribere, to write. The idea is that prior to Lent, we make our confession, while the priest pre-scribes or imposes a penance. To join Jesus, we need him first to join us. We need to be shriven by him.
Few people understood Psalm 38 better than Zacchaeus the tax collector. Looking down from the sycamore tree, he heard Jesus say that he wanted to visit. Zacchaeus, recognizing the utter incongruity of this proposition, made his confession: “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded any one of anything, I restore it fourfold” (Luke 19:8).
It is at that point that Zacchaeus was healed. Tyndale renders Jesus’s commentary as follows: “This day is health come unto this house” (19:9). To be sure, Jesus speaks of salvation, not health. But Zacchaeus knew with the psalmist: “There is no health in my flesh.” And so, the great physician entered his house. Jesus was his health and salvation.
Before Lent starts, we must join the psalmist and Zacchaeus. Only when we are in their company—shriven of every Lenten presumption—will Jesus join us over the next 40 days to sustain us on our Lenten journey.
Hans Boersma is the Saint Benedict Servants of Christ Professor in Ascetical Theology at Nashotah House Theological Seminary.
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