As the movie “Moana” begins, Moana’s grandmother is telling the children of the village an old legend. The goddess, Te Fiti, she explains, is their mother island; she is creator of all the islands. Long ago, Maui, a power hungry demi-god, stole the mother island’s heart. Without her heart, Te Fiti cannot sustain her creation. The world she has made begins to decay. A darkness settles over the sea; sailing becomes unsafe. Moana’s people, once adventurous sea navigators, confine themselves to one island. For a time, this strategy keeps them safe. But, Moana’s grandmother warns, the danger will eventually reach even their beloved island.
One day, while Moana is a young toddler playing with the ocean, the heart of Te Fiti washes up on the beach. The heart is a small, glowing rock engraved with a swirling pattern. Moana’s grandmother picks up the heart and saves it for when the time is right. As Moana grows, her people’s situation becomes more and more desperate. By the time she is a teenager, the fish around their reef are disappearing and the coconuts are rotting on the trees. Through the mentorship of her grandmother, Moana comes to understand that she is being chosen to restore Te Fiti’s heart.
I’m skipping a lot here. . . . When Moana at last reaches Te Fiti, the island is missing. Standing on a rocky ridge, she finally sees the remains of the goddess—a pale gray shadow on the water. Then the fire monster, Te Ka, begins to approach. Yellow, orange and red fire pours forth from Te Ka’s skin of cracked rock. Her eyes are vacant, blazing holes; her mouth an angry gash. Flames spurt from her hands and crown her head. Studying Te Ka, Moana notices that the same pattern that is engraved on the heart of Te Fiti is also stamped into the chest of the monster. And she realizes the truth: Te Ka and Te Fiti are one. The creator without her heart has become a fire of angry despair bent on consuming the whole world.
Lent is a season modeled after Jesus’ 40 days and 40 nights in the desert wilderness. During this time, Jesus, like Moana, is caught up in an epic struggle for the heart of a world torn between creation and destruction. Mark’s description of this key event in Jesus’ life is incredibly brief—two sentences. So the scenes that come before and after offer an important frame as we read these verses. Jesus’ baptism makes his identity and purpose clear; he is God’s beloved one. And perhaps this belovedness is the key to understanding what Jesus really means when he preaches in that first sermon, “the kingdom of God has come near.” I don’t think the gift of belovedness is something that is meant to be exclusive to Jesus. It is a relational reality, a shared identity that Jesus reveals and embodies. Because Jesus is beloved, so are you, so am I, so is all of creation. The kingdom of God is the state of right relationship we will inhabit together when we allow belovedness to be our deepest truth.
However, Jesus’ ministry of belovedness is also a ministry of confrontation and conflict. At his baptism, the Spirit of God enters the world through a rip in the sky. And though the Spirit is presented with the imagery of the dove of peace, the very next move the Spirit makes is to “drive” or, more literally, to “throw” Jesus into the wilderness. Clearly the peace the Spirit gives is the kind that comes only after a fight. And, on the other side of Jesus’ fight, as he emerges from the wilderness, is the arrest of John the Baptist. John’s arrest serves to foreshadow the constant conflict and deathly confrontation that Jesus’ message, and his way of being, will provoke. Through Jesus, God works to set the world right, and the powers of the world resist—with violence.
Conflict is necessary. We are called into a ministry of confrontation. Rex Huppke of the Chicago Tribune points out that it is this very dedication to struggle that is missing in our nation’s response to gun violence. “Seventeen dead. At a high school. In America,” he writes,
It has happened before, it happened Wednesday and it will happen again. Why? Because nothing. We do nothing. School shooting. Nothing. School shooting. Nothing. School shooting. Nothing. . . . What do we tell those parents? Grieving. Heartbroken. Ruined. This is what I’ll tell them. This is what I’ll tell the NRA. This is what I’ll tell politicians who line their pockets with blood money and sit on their hands. This is what I’ll say: I don’t know exactly what would’ve stopped children from being murdered at a South Florida high school. But I know for certain that what allowed it to happen was America doing nothing. America doing what it always does in the wake of slaughters. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing gets us seventeen dead on the ground in a high school. Nothing is insanity. Nothing has to stop.
We are called into, not away from, struggle. Scholars agree that “tested” is a better translation of Mark’s language than “tempted.” And in the Jewish tradition that informed the Gospel writers and the early Christian community, Satan was not the devil; Satan was in fact an agent of God, an adversarial presence, who provoked a clarifying struggle. Perhaps we could compare Satan to the angel who wrestled with Jacob all night long. It was a fierce and exhausting fight. Jacob’s hip was put out of joint. But in the end, as dawn broke, Jacob received a life-changing blessing. The one who had always been the trickster, the cheater, the fraud, won a fresh name, a new start. For the first time in his life, he truly became himself.
Our theme this Lent is “heart space.” In our spiritual tradition, the heart is a way of talking about the deepest part of who we are. The heart is the center of our being. The heart is the part of us that knows God, that is intertwined with God. The question is, how do we live from our hearts? The wilderness story, and this season in which we live within that story, suggest that it takes wrestling—conflict and confrontation. But the wrestling we do is counterintuitive, because what we seek to learn through our wrestling is how to surrender.
On Ash Wednesday, I shared a piece about prayer that I want to repeat again today. In Breathing Underwater: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps, Richard Rohr writes:
In what is commonly called prayer, you and your hurts, needs, and perspectives are still the central reference point, but now you have decided to invite a Major Power in to help you with your already determined solution. God can help you get what you want, which is still a self-centered desire, instead of God’s much better role—which is to help you know what you really desire. . . . True prayer is always about getting the “who” right. Who is doing the praying? You or God in you? Little you or the Christ Consciousness? The contemplative mind prays from a different sense of Who-I-am. It rests, and abides in the Great I AM, and draws its life form the Larger Vine, the Deeper Well. . . . Basically prayer is an exercise in divine participation—you opting in and God always there!
When Moana recognizes that the fire monster Te Ka is a distortion of the graceful creator, Te Fiti, she knows that she must confront this terrifying presence. “Let her come to me” she says. She calmly stands her ground as the fiery monster thunders toward her on all fours. Then she reaches out her hand to touch Te Ka’s angry head, and she sings, “I have crossed the horizon to find you/ I know your name./ They have stolen the heart from inside you/ But this does not define you./ This is not who you are/ You know who you are”
Beloved, we know too, who we really are. This Lent, how will you respond to the call to struggle, to wrestle, to take up a ministry of conflict and confrontation? How will you seek the new life that comes through surrender to the one whose heart is alive in the heart of each of us and the heart of the world?