Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and God’s love is perfected in us. (1 John 4.11-12)
Lent invites us to participate in a global event that replicates two emblematic treks: the New Testament stories of Jesus’s 40-day sojourn in the desert and the Hebrew Bible’s account of Israel’s 40-year wilderness journey. In one, we watch as Jesus’s personal identity as God’s Chosen Son is tested and refined. In the other, we witness the formation of community, as the Israelites’ ordeal becomes a crucible that forges their identity as God’s Chosen people. While being “chosen” is central to both narratives, they play out in remarkably different ways that Lent asks us to reconcile. The great tension in Lent’s discipline urges us to examine our lives in two spheres that often generate conflict: individuality versus community, personal versus public, “I” versus “we.”
As we end our first week in this metaphorical desert, we’re apt to wonder what we’re supposed to be doing out here. Like Jesus and the Israelites, it’s too soon in this process for us to ascertain its real purpose. (And this year is different than all the previous ones, because we are different.) Ostensibly, we enter Lent in search of God—all the while knowing we will never actually see God, because no one ever has. Even so, the question that haunts us is, “How shall we meet God?” Or, put another way, “How will God find us?”
If we undertake Lent purely as a solo quest—cocooning ourselves in private introspection and prayer—we won’t complete the task it assigns to us. On the other hand, if we ignore its personal demands and treat it as a group effort, our work will also go undone. Lent’s ultimate goal is to restore awareness that God has chosen us, as individuals and a community. That is where our true identity, personally and publicly, is discovered and sustained.
Fortunately, we know where our journey culminates. No matter how circuitous this year’s route may be, it stops at the foot of the cross, where God’s love for each of us is lavishly displayed. Then it ultimately lands at the empty tomb, where resurrection empowers Christ’s followers to change the world. And there it is again: individuality and community, personal and public, “I” and “we."
First John 4.11-12 beautifully synthesizes the Lenten dynamic for us. God’s love for each of us transforms us so we can love one another. Although we will never actually see God (not in this lifetime, that is), God’s love enables others to see God in us and us to see God in them, because God lives in all of us. “And God’s love is perfected in us,” John says, which brings the personal aspects of Lent’s refining process into the picture.
We have been chosen, as individuals and a community, to discover and reveal God’s love. In this respect, Lent’s desert is neither a wasteland nor a lonely place. It runs wild with rivers of love that flow over us and through us, individually and collectively. As God’s love is perfected in each of us, God is more clearly seen by all of us. So the answer to both questions—is Lent about “me” or is at about “us”—is an emphatic “Yes!”