Believe it or not, we’re only about a month away from Lent. Ash Wednesday falls on Valentine’s Day this year. Eeeeck! That means we are in the Advent of (waiting and preparing for) Lent.
Today we will discuss two conflicting ideas in the Bible. The first is followers of God are supposed to be in the world, be part of the world, but transform the world through the societies that we participate in. Passages supporting this idea may be familiar: “You are the light of the world,” “You are a city on a hill that shines for all the world to see,” “Do not hide your light, rather, let your light shine,” (Mt 5) “You will command nations you do not know, and peoples unknown to you will come running to obey, because I, the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, have made you glorious." (Isaiah 55:5)
Simultaneously, there is the idea that followers of God are set aside. We are to be apart from, unstained, unaffected by the world and the societies in which we live. From Deuteronomy, “You are a holy people, who belong to the LORD your God. Of all the people on earth, the LORD your God has chosen you to be his own special treasure.” (7.6) Psalm 4:3, “The LORD set apart the godly for himself. The LORD will answer when I call to him.” From Exodus 23:2, “Stand apart from a crowd in wrong doing, do not participate with them who pervert justice.” From St. Peter’s first letter, “You are a chosen people; you are royal priests, a holy nation, God’s very own possession. … Your friends from your old life will be surprised when you no longer do what they do, so they will slander you.” (2.9, 4.4) From the Letter to the Hebrews, “For it was indeed fitting that we should have such a high priest [Jesus], holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens” (7:26)
In addition, St. Paul writes in Second Corinthians, “Do not be mismatched with unbelievers. What partnership is there between righteousness and lawlessness? What fellowship is there between light and dark? What agreement is there between the Temple of God and idols?” Then quoting Isaiah and Ezekiel, Paul writes, “Come out from them, separate from them, touch nothing unclean; then I will welcome you, and I will be your Father and you will be my daughters and my sons.” (6:17-18)
What are we to do? Over the millennia, followers of God have tried different ways to be set-aside. The Essenes sequestered themselves in the desert. Monastics created enclaves to separate themselves. Today some people participate in Hasidic Judaism who, starting in the 18thcentury, have lived separately. Are we supposed to separate ourselves? Should we convert Saint John’s property to living spaces for the congregation so we can live holy and separate from the world?
The answer is yes and no. It is impossible to remain unstained by society and the only way to live in this world is to keep our hearts pure of material and selfish desires and judgmental thoughts.
During Lent we can experience a set-aside-ness while living in the world. When I worked for the insurance company, I gave up alcohol and unhealthy food for Lent. My department went out Fridays for happy hour. I went but sat with a glass of water and celery sticks. As St. Peter predicted, I was ridiculed, though softly, nicely, in a Fortune 100 corporate sort of way; I chose to go with my department but to be separate. That’s what Lent is about and perhaps that is a way of living our entire spiritual lives.