“HAVE YOURSELF A LIMINAL LITTLE LENT”
GENESIS 2:15-17; 3:1-7 MATTHEW 4:1-11
MARCH 1, 2020 (LENT I)
REV. ZACHARY L. BAY
Two months ago today, I was packing a bag to head off to South Africa for a two-week Doctor of Ministry Travel Seminar. Kristy’s family was packing up to head back home, and the season of Christmastide was beginning to wane after a busy and wonderful Advent. On January 2, 2020, the plane I had sat in for over 16 hours touched down at the Oliver Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, South Africa.
My trip to South Africa was not my first international trip, nor at two weeks my longest. I had previously been to Brazil, Costa Rica, the UK, Jordan, Syria, Israel, the Sinai Peninsula of Egypt and Athens, Greece, and I had spent a full month in Costa Rica and three weeks bouncing around that list of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean countries. It wasn’t even my first academic travel seminar—my time in the Holy Land was the same. But, of all the places I’ve been, South Africa left the largest mark on my soul.
Since coming returning home on my birthday nearly two months ago, I have lived in liminal time and space. If you are unfamiliar with that word, “liminal” comes from the Latin word l-i-m-e-n, which refers to the threshold in a door. That literal, concrete definition was all there was to be said about the word “liminal”—at least in English usage—until in anthropologist Arnold Van Gennep used the word to talk about human rites of passage in 1909. Since then, artist and philosophers and scientists have all made use of the word liminal as an in-between space or time. When you are experiencing liminality, you have left one place but not yet arrived at another. Think back to what the Latin word means. Standing on the threshold of a doorway, you are neither in the living room nor the kitchen. You are in-between. When you are experiencing liminality, one season has left you behind, but the subsequent season hasn’t yet gotten to you. Think of blackberry winter… Which is it? Winter or spring? Well, neither. And both. It is liminal.
In 1984, biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann applied Van Gennep’s new usage and all the subsequent literature to the Bible—to the book of Psalms, specifically. Brueggemann introduced to the church a way of seeing life and faith that has helped Christians live faithfully ever since. He referred to it as a cycle of Orientation, Disorientation, and New Orientation. In the preface of his book, Brueggemann cites Philippians 2:5-11 as an example.
“Though he was in the form of God…” Orientation.
“[He] emptied himself.” Disorientation.
“Therefore God was highly exalted in him…” New Orientation.
Since Brueggemann wrote that commentary, Orientation, Disorientation, and New Orientation have become part of the groundwater in theological and biblical education. You read it everywhere, and students of the Bible recite the trio of words often.
In her most recent book, spiritual director Susan Beaumont shows us just how thorough biblical Brueggemann’s cycle is.
Noah lives in the world with his family. Noah endures a 40 day flood. Noah comes to a new life with his family in a new place atop Mount Ararat. Orientation. Disorientation. New Orientation.
Ruth is a Moabite woman. She gives up her identity as a Moabite, attaches herself to Naomi, and moves to Judah, leaving her family behind. A lot of odd and awful stuff happens, but eventually, she becomes the great grandmother of King David…and of Jesus.
Joseph is the favorite son. Until he’s not. He’s thrown into a pit, gets taken into servitude in Egypt, and only later gets a new identity as a dream interpreter to Pharaoh.
Paul is a champion among the religiously zealous. He is struck blind on the road to Damascus. He becomes a disciple of Jesus, leaving his old ways and identity behind.
Orientation. Disorientation. New Orientation.
The story of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2 sets up the whole Bible as one long story of Disorientation. Adam and Eve live in paradise. They fall to the serpent’s wiles, and end up in the words of John Steinbeck: East of Eden. Scratching out a living in-between what was and what is yet to come. From there, this narrative cycle goes on through the Bible repeating itself as fiercely as if it had never been told.
Even Jesus’ life is subject to Orientation, Disorientation, New Orientation—both as a whole, and in multiple smaller instances throughout. Today’s Gospel Lesson shows us one of those smaller instances. Up to this point, Jesus has lived as the son of Mary and Joseph. We don’t have a lot of detail, but we know he went to the temple. Maybe he helped his daddy with the family business. Up ‘til then, Jesus life was one of steady, sure Orientation. Then came his baptism, and off the back of it, this story about fasting and praying and facing temptation in the wilderness. Disorientation. Liminality. In-between-ness.
As a church, we always begin the season of Lent with this story because the season of Lent is a season of Disorientation. Lent is liminal. We have now left behind the story of Advent and the steady counting of Sundays during Jesus’ young adulthood and early ministry. We have not yet reached the season of a gloriously-resurrected Christ. For a period of 40 days, we like Noah, we like Moses, we like Jesus, live in liminal time and space as a church family. Lent is liminal. Lent is in-between the first joy of Advent and Christmas and the second joy of Easter. Lent is an invitation to sit with our faith and with one another and resist the temptation to look for quick and easy resolutions to life’s thorny and messy problems.
Lent came early for me this year. My body reoriented itself to home on January 17th—my 35th birthday—but my spirit was still then and is still now groping through liminality for New Orientation. We first set flame to the seven candles of the Lenten Lights Candelabra this past week on the night of Ash Wednesday, and I have never been quite so glad to see Lent as I was and am this year.
There was a map on a wall in a mission organization in South Africa that serves as a good illustration of why that is. This map forsook the old Mercator projection that we all used in school for a different rendering of the world. When you take the surface of a sphere and try to flatten it out into a rectangle, you get distortions. The Mercator projection distorts the space at the poles of the globe, making North America, Europe, and Russia appear far larger than they really are. Other projections correct for this, and show better just how huge Africa really is in a way that old Mercator’s 16th century map didn’t. And, this map was upside down. Well, as upside down as any point on a sphere—which has no top and bottom—can be. This map on this wall in this mission organization that made my home look smaller than I ever imagined and put it on the bottom right of the map rather than the top left…and I had a little vertigo.
My vertigo…my Disorientation…my liminal, in-between space…started long before and has lasted long after my seeing that map on that wall. Never before my time in South Africa had I seen so clearly how racial and political my white skin is—all by itself. I used to think that “race” and “racial” were words that applied to people of color. I implicitly understood my white skin as neutral, as “nonracial.” Beloved, you cannot travel from a county that is 96% white to a country that is 8% white and read and study all we did and not begin to see the color or the power of your own white skin. Or, at least, I can’t. At a retreat center where we stayed near the end of our trip, our group needed a coffee maker for the common room. I went to the kitchen to ask the people working there for one, and you never saw a room full of people move so quickly in every direction. I couldn’t help but wonder if I had been anything other than a well-dressed white male, would that interaction have gone differently? And what interactions—every day all my life long—have been this way and I haven’t noticed because I thought “white” was “neutral?”
I have lived in this liminal, in-between space since I got back from South Africa, and like most periods of Disorientation, it persists awhile. Especially this year, I have looked forward to Lent because I have looked forward to seeing Jesus head off into liminal space. I have looked forward to Lent’s invitation to focus on fundamentals: giving, praying, fasting.
When you are out of time and space…when you are standing on a threshold between what was and what is yet to come…when you are in-between in the limbo of liminality…fundamentals ground you.
Like a South Africa travel seminar;
Like a doctor’s concerned brow;
Like a diagnosis;
Like uncertainty about employment;
Like days spent near a bully at school;
Like the death of a loved one;
Like moving to a new place;
Like risking starting a business;
Like having a child;
All of that is like Jesus being driven out into the wilderness by the Spirit. Being pushed from Orientation into Disorientation. From comfort and stability and predictability to liminality.
If you, like me, are living in-between, Lent is for you. Already, on the First Sunday in the season, Jesus is out there ahead of you in your wilderness. He is showing you how to abide there in the Disorientation. Pray and fast. Fast and pray. And, he is telling you that even now, even if you cannot yet see it: Easter is coming. Until then: pray and fast, and remember that Jesus is already out there, ahead of you, and you are not alone.