This post originally was begun on Shrove Tuesday, as part of an intended series of reflections on Lent. In keeping with the writer’s sins of procrastination and poor time management it is offered here, on the first Friday in Lent.
If you ever want to see one of the miracles of our everyday life, you need look no further than the transformation of a humble caterpillar into a beautiful butterfly.
The lowly worm spends its early days stuffing itself with food, with no thought to its future purpose. When it is time for transformation, though, the caterpillar shifts gears. It quits consuming – it sheds itself of this world and seeks solitude.
Once it has found a safe place, the caterpillar literally goes within itself. It wraps itself within a cocoon, and then dissolves itself. It dissolves everything of itself into an amorphous soup that bears no resemblance to caterpillar or butterfly. Special clusters of cells, ordered from the time the soon-to-be butterfly was an egg, reorder the soup into the wings, antennae, body and organs of its new creation.
When it comes time to for the butterfly to emerge, it cannot be helped out of its cocoon. The struggle to push its way out of the cocoon finishes the formation of its wings. Without the struggle, the butterfly would never fly. When the work is done, the butterfly emerges as something of a higher order, and infinitely more beautiful than it had been. What had once crawled at our feet, below our gaze, now soars, drawing our eyes upward.
This path to transformation is instructive for us as we prepare to undertake our spiritual journey through Lent.
Like the caterpillar, we now face the time for transformation. It’s time to put aside the things of this world that stand between us and our higher purpose. Yes, on Fat Tuesday we may gorge ourselves on pancakes and other treats in expectation of the long, lean journey ahead. But, this day of preparation also is Shrove Tuesday – the day we are shriven from our sins by undertaking self-examination and honest confession.
Once we’ve set aside our sins, stripped ourselves of whatever is holding us back spiritually, we are prepared to go within, into the ultimate solitude.
Jesus sets the precedent for this period of introspection at the beginning of his ministry. Luke tells us in the fourth chapter of his Gospel that “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.”
God Incarnate in human form subjected himself to the privations of 40 days in the desert, to share in our human travails, to face our temptations and forgo the honors of this world to continue the journey that will end in pain and death, glory and resurrection.
Lent calls us to follow Jesus into that desert, to set aside whatever is holding us back, to go within ourselves, to seek out the Holy Spirit and prepare for the trial and the glory to come. Once in the perfect starkness of the desert, in our cocoon, there is nothing to behold but ourselves, our temptations and God.
Nothing of this world can aid us in this journey. The strength of our possessions, our wealth, titles and reputation – or lack of any of these – cannot bring us any closer to Christ, and to our highest spiritual potential. We must set these aside, just as Jesus took no baggage with him into the desert, and proceed only on the strength of our spirit, and in our unity with the Holy Spirit.
Paul elaborates on this need to shed our baggage, in Philippians 3:8-9: “For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.”
Just as the caterpillar dissolves its former body to become something better, Paul calls us to discard the rubbish in our lives – spiritual or physical – in order to emerge on the other end of our journey transformed, resplendent in ways we cannot now imagine.
Looking ahead, on this side of Lent, the task of transformation is daunting. It can be hard to imagine how we could be up to the task of following Christ into this desert. For our transformation to be meaningful we, like the butterfly, must go within. We must allow ourselves and our fears of this world to be dissolved. And we must struggle with our temptations, to form the spiritual wings God designed for us before we were us.
But in this struggle we are not alone. In this desert, in the midst of our spiritual thirst, Christ waits to sustain us, and lead us to transformation, to salvation. We are assured in John 4:14: “those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”
The path ahead is one that demands introspection, surrender and change. That change may seem contrary to the promises of this world. We may have to dissolve the things we have built up thus far in this world in order to attain true transformation. But, if we allow the Holy Spirit to be our guide, and trust in the sustaining power of Christ’s living water, we will emerge on the other side, transformed in ways that will lift the gaze of creation.
Almighty God, as we prepare to begin your holy season of Lent, give us the strength and integrity to search ourselves for any sin that separates us from your full glory. Help us to set aside any habits that hinder our full acceptance of your perfect love. Give us the courage to follow Christ into our spiritual desert, to trust in the sustaining waters of your Spirit, and to surrender ourselves to the transformation that awaits us in your Kingdom. Amen.