March proverbially “comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb.” Since most of the Lenten season takes place in March, it can be instructive to remember the vision that guides our worship and practice during Lent: the peaceable kingdom where the lion lies down with the lamb.
That is, after all, the goal of our journey and the object of our longing during Lent. Not just peaceful coexistence in the animal world, but peace among nations, between races, between the sexes, and even in families and churches. We long for the day when, as in the prophet Micah’s vision, people “shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore; but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid” (Micah 4:3–4).
What a beautiful combination of soaring hope and modest aspiration! And what a powerful example for how we should approach our life of faith and our work on behalf of peace and justice. Guided by this vision of Micah’s, we must always keep in view the desire and hope of the ages and of nearly every beauty pageant contestant who has ever roamed the earth: the coming of universal peace.
At the same time, however, it may be beneficial for us to temper our expectations with the more mundane hope for a vine, a fig tree, and freedom from fear. It reminds me of the maxim made famous on bumper sticker-festooned Volkswagens the world over: “Think globally, act locally.” The idea is that we’re all connected, and the good we accomplish in our local setting will be sure to contribute to the good of the whole. Considered negatively, it also means that if we can’t get our own houses in order—if we can’t accomplish peaceful relations in our own families and communities, we have little chance of achieving the grander vision of the nations’ choosing to “learn war no more.”
The image of the householder enjoying the shade of her grapevine and fig tree without fear or anxiety has another, deeper resonance for me. Earlier in my career I worked for a nongovernmental organization in Washington, DC, whose purpose was to defend religious minorities who were suffering persecution for their faith. Early in my time there, I had the opportunity to travel to Sri Lanka, a country we had been monitoring, having heard reports of violent attacks on Christian villagers by the Buddhist majority. While there our team interviewed scores of pastors and laypeople who had run afoul of radical Buddhist monks in their villages, who stirred up their neighbors to beat them, threaten their lives, and burn down their houses. I found the reports credible, albeit surprising (after all, aren’t Buddhists supposed to be nonviolent?), and returned to the US determined to use whatever leverage I could find in our nation’s capital to help protect these vulnerable, put-upon, yet ultimately heroic people of faith.
Multiply their stories by the millions, with Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia, Bahai adherents in Iran, practitioners of Falun Gong in China, and Christians in Pakistan, Nigeria, Eritrea, and elsewhere feeling the brunt of their neighbors’ animosity, frustration, and fear. Add billions more when you consider people denied their human rights in North Korea, journalists endangered in Russia, China, and Venezuela, refugees and economic migrants vilified and scapegoated in Europe and the United States, and the hundreds of millions of people around the world living in the squalor and hopelessness of extreme poverty. It doesn’t take long to begin to see the attraction of the modest hope for a vine and a fig tree and a life in which fear and worry no longer prowl the edges of the compound like hungry lions. Unreconstructed lions who have not yet got the memo about their new relationship with the lambs.
Our Lenten hope, whether modest or expansive, global or local—lions and lambs or grapes and figs—is ultimately founded on the faithfulness and fortitude of Jesus Christ. The Lion of Judah. The Lamb of God. Let us be faithful in following him to the cross … and to the empty tomb beyond.