Whenever I’m home, I gravitate to my big comfortable chair facing our television. I grab a cold beer, a bag of potato chips, and plop down in front of the television to watch for a while. It’s so very comfortable! The more relaxed I become, the more I slouch in this soft lazy chair. If my daughters are out of bed, then the great risk is that they’ll ask me to get up. Truthfully, it feels like I’m being dragged out of my lazy chair. It’s uncomfortable, but I get up because my little girl says, “Daddy, come play with me.” The invitation is too good to turn down. The Gospel works in our lives in a similar way. The Gospel of God should make us uncomfortable, because it is a complete interruption to our normal lives. The Gospels demands much from us. But, the promise of divine life is too attractive to turn down.
The Gospel is radical, but our familiarity with it blinds us. So, we need a fresh look at the Gospel to jolt us out of our complacent and dismissive view of it. The Gospel is the story of Jesus being reduced to nothingness. The Gospel is a dangerous memory that disrupts the story of conventional society. The Gospel is lived by being reduced to nothingness with Jesus. In this way, God frees us from the grips of evil. God does not fight evil on evil’s terms but by being God: the humble, poor, merciful yet incomprehensible mystery grounding the whole of existence. The cross, God’s instrument of salvation, is, essentially, about being reduced to nothing.
This is not a theme I choose arbitrarily. No less an authority than St. Paul says, “God chose the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are something” (1 Corinthians 1:28). God’s plan is to reduce us to nothing so that our inherent oneness with God can be insuppressibly real for us. It’s a scriptural theme, and we find it in tradition as well. An obscure medieval hermit named Stephen of Muret says, “If it is the Son of God you wish to imitate – he who emptied himself – you will have to reduce yourself to nothing.” Such a view of the Gospel has the power to shock us out of our assumed knowledge to perceive just how radically devastating the Gospel is to our conventional American lives. This is a reduction of ego, of the self to the nothingness of God. Jesus, in other words, surrenders and lets go and simultaneously reveals God who is humble and so mysterious that Catholic mystical tradition has called God, “nothing.”
Today’s Gospel reading points to the characterization of Jesus’ story and our following Jesus as being reduced to nothing. Jesus lets the Spirit lead him into the desert. He gives full attention to God and surrenders to God’s Holy Spirit. This is the primary way we follow Jesus along this path of reduction to nothingness, for when we allow God to be the center of our lives we stop being the center. Such an allowance is a reduction of the ego to nothing, for then the ego is not the center of life. It’s not what we do, but what we allow to be done to us. Otherwise, whatever practices we choose to do, the ego is still in charge. Ego cannot be the one directing the ego-diminishing path of being reduced to nothing.
I remember attending a week-long workshop at a retreat center in the Sonoran Desert. There was a booklet in my room that detailed all the ways the desert would be able to kill me: scorpions, rattle snakes, tarantulas, and, most of all, dehydration. The desert is a lifeless place and it is ready to kill us! Yet, Jesus plunges into this deadly terrain. In the desert, God dries up our ego and kills our polite suburban lifestyle, so we can be truly free, joyful, and loving.
Clearly, the desert is not a comfortable place. It’s not a place we prefer. Instead, we prefer the comforts of sit-com culture. The sit-coms of the various major networks tell the stories of average Americans, shows like Family Ties, Modern Family, or Family Matters (note the bourgeois emphasis on family). In these television programs the characters are never in any real danger and everything always turns out all right in the end. Their lives go on as before. The status quo of making money, succeeding in academics or athletics, and, most heinous of all, complete ignorance of the poor and suffering continue like no drama ever happened.
Jesus is led into the desert, which suggests he consents. He surrenders to God’s Spirit. Right at the very beginning of the Gospel of Mark we see Jesus says a wholehearted yes to God’s plan, namely, to reduce him to nothingness. Jesus keeps surrendering to God and to this path of reduction to nothingness as the Gospel story unfolds and reaches its climax in the passion and death of Jesus. The desert into which Jesus is led stands for the nothingness. It’s the Bible’s way of pointing to the divine mystery of transcendence as it coincides with and reveals its inherent unity with poverty, deprivation, humility, littleness, emptiness, and nothingness.
The Gospel is the dangerous memory of Christ Crucified, which is Jesus being reduced to nothing. This memory disrupts and devastates the basic assumptions we have about life, which underlie our very approach to life. The Gospel attacks sit-com culture or, as some theologians call it, bourgeois society. The story of Jesus being reduced to nothingness should cause discomfort. This should repulse us, but the Gospel is not here to confirm conventional American values. Instead, the Gospel is the antithesis to the world’s status quo and bourgeois values. These values include the priority of the market, the accumulation of possessions, success, beauty, competition, comparison, and, especially, autonomy (our cherished freedom to choose). A reduction to nothing is an opposite path than the one we take every day in polite society.
The Gospel path we all commit to taking as followers of Jesus is the path of being reduced to nothing, and that should be terrifying. The Gospel of God interrupts all our pretensions, all our niceties, and, especially, all the unquestioned cultural myths we harbor. We are faced with a terrible decision this Lent: repent and head into the desert with Jesus to be reduced to nothing, which is the route to discovering God, or slink back to the comforts of normal life, of dreary yet familiar suburban/bourgeois culture and remain wholly dead to Divine Life and Happiness, and there to continue oppressing the poor, minorities, and anyone who questions the system because we don’t want the rocking the boat or our secure existence. Repent! Turn away from the tempting comforts of life, the all-too-easy rationalizations we apply to those times when God calls us out of our comfort zones into the desert of divine mystery to suffer with others and show divine compassion. Do we just believe in Jesus or do we follow Jesus? Will we only believe in conversion and mercy or will we actually repent?
To take this absolutely seriously, to start living the Gospel, Lent focuses us on three Gospel practices: prayer, almsgiving, and fasting. But the foundational practice is repentance, which means calling into question everything we take for granted about our lives. It means being ready to give up our cherished bourgeois values of competition, success, and strength to receive the Gospel values of weakness, nonviolence, a joyfully suffering humiliations. Still we need to give this repentance concrete form in our lives. So, we fast, give alms, and pray.
Fast from TV, movies, and the internet. Unplug and slow down. Give alms, however you choose to donate money to a charity, give alms by personally interacting with someone suffering from poverty. Get to know their name and listen to their story. Whatever method of prayer you choose, make sure to pray it contemplatively, which means allowing for interior silence and stillness. Above all, intend to practice out of love for God and neighbor. This requires going outside our comfort zones.
The life and teachings of Jesus show how his follower is reduced to nothing through humiliations, weakness, poverty, trials, defenselessness, loss, misunderstanding, service, no support, littleness, insecurity, suffering, hiddenness, anonymity, and interior silence. The Gospels in our Bibles teach these values. A vital Lenten practice, then, is to read the Gospels. I suggest we read the Gospel of Mark, for it is a clearly the story of Jesus being reduced to nothingness. It is also a direct challenge to us, the followers of Jesus, to take up our crosses and trod the same path as Jesus by repentance. In doing so, we, like Jesus, become a serious threat to conventional, well-mannered, American life.