During my first pregnancy I did a lot of research about “what to expect.” Yes, I read the book of the same title, along with a whole host of others. I also researched c-section rates of all the local hospitals, participated in online pregnancy and birth forums, and even took an expensive private childbirth class. By the time I was actually in labor, I thought I had a pretty good idea of how things would go. Of course, not everything happened the way I would have expected, and some parts of the journey lasted a lot longer than the estimates in the books. There were times when I was in so much pain and fear that I could not see what stage I was in, or that I was making progress, slow as it was. Despite having studied the roadmap, the power of labor demanded that I let go of my understanding of that map, surrender to the spirit that had overtaken me, stay in the moment, and just take one contraction, one breath, one push at a time. In retrospect I could see that I had followed the map. But while I was living it, I lost all perspective.
Today’s scripture selections also give us a roadmap for birth, or rather, rebirth. Mythologists call it the “hero cycle.” This roadmap is embedded in all great tales of every culture and era, from Homer’s Odyssey to George Lucas’ Star Wars. It is also repeated throughout sacred scripture, both Old and New Testaments.
An unlikely, unwitting, or even unwilling hero is “called.” (Enter Noah.) Almost always there is some sort of initiation by water, or if not water, some storm which separates the hero from home and forces him to walk the path of his destiny. You could call it baptism. After the initiation, the hero experiences isolation and testing, not unlike Jesus’ stint in the desert after His baptism. These are the stages today’s scripture talks about, and the rest of Lent provides us with the rest of the roadmap: questing, and ultimately some sort of death (St. John of the Cross called it the “dark night of the soul”) before finally experiencing resurrection, atonement (or “at-one-ment”), ascension, and, ultimately, balance.
By virtue of our baptism, or by virtue of that covenant God made when He put the rainbow in the sky, or maybe simply by virtue of being created in His image, we all are heroes on some section of that path. Sometimes we willingly embrace the journey, other times the constant flux and change of life sets us on a journey we would never choose. For me, the liturgical season of Lent is as much about making an annual rehearsal of all the stages of that journey as it is about repentance. During my second and third labors, I was much more aware of the signposts along that physical journey of birth. because I’d walked it before. It was still painful and at times scary, but I could trust that all was well in spite of the pain and fear. In fact, I could embrace it. In the same way, Lent gives us an annual opportunity to “practice” being a hero no matter what stage we’re in now, so that when we do find ourselves on that journey “for real,” we will know better the signs and practice acceptance instead of resistance.
When we are called, we can remember that it is futile to refuse our destiny. When we are thrust into a storm and feel as though we are drowning in a sea of emotion, we can know that this is our baptism. When we need to get away from it all, or when we find ourselves unwillingly isolated in the desert, we can be assured that this stage will pass. When we are tempted and tested, we can trust that we have been endowed with the power to resist. When we quest and face an uphill battle as Jesus did with the “higher ups” of His time, we can acknowledge that it is all part of the process. And when we are faced with our own dark night of the soul, we can have hope that death is just the threshold to rebirth and a new journey home as a new creation.
What is the point of all this journeying anyway? I think the answer can be found in today’s selection of St. Peter’s epistle talking about Noah and the foreshadowing of the sacrament of Baptism. “It is not a removal of dirt from the body but an appeal to God for a clear conscience,” he says, and everything after our baptisms – the isolation, the testing, the questing, the dying, and the rising – is God’s answer to that appeal. We may not like the stages of the journey. We may lose perspective as we focus on simply surviving the ordeal. But out Lenten practice has given us the muscles and the tools to endure and perhaps even be more conscious as we weather the journey, season after season.