Every year we observe this season of Lent, and some folks are inclined to view it as a disruption of their normal lives. “Why,” they ask, “ought I spend more time in prayer, or good works, or in fasting and abstinence?” No doubt this is more true today, when most of the Christians (even Catholics) around us seem barely to take notice of the season at all.
To begin with, we ought to recognize that Lent is not some sort of “endurance contest.” It is not a case of “hitting yourself over the head with a hammer because it feels so good when you stop.” It is not an attempt to see who can eat the least, or go without a cigarette until the moment after the Easter Vigil—although most of us are in a position to benefit physically from the observance of a good Lent, that is not its true purpose.
The Church begins lent with a series of daily readings from the Book of Genesis. Already, a few weeks ago we read about the creation of the world, and particularly about our first parents, Adam and Eve. We saw that God created them with special gifts, placing them far above ordinary nature: they had direct and personal contact with God; they possessed a strong intellect, freedom from physical ills and the need to toil for their daily necessities; they were able to exercise a great deal of self control.
But man revolted against God. He fell for the lie that if he were to disobey God, he would become like a “god” himself—that is to say that this splendid creature of God fell victim to the sin of pride. In seeking his self importance, he offered insult to his infinite Creator, lost all of those special gifts I mentioned, and found himself with no way at all to repair the damage. There was no way that finite man, stripped of those preternatural gifts could make amends to infinite God. God promised a Redeemer, but man had thousands of years before that Redeemer appeared in the flesh. Thousands of years of relatively frustrating and unproductive struggle.
And, being the children of Adam and Eve, we also found ourselves without those special gifts which were intended to distinguish men and women from the rest of nature. It is as though we were the children of a man who was once very wealthy, but who squandered all of his money many years ago, and had nothing to leave for his descendants.
Even though we have been baptized, we have still not received all of the gifts which were once the legacy of human-kind, for God did not deem it prudent to restore all of them at the Redemption—perhaps He viewed them as too great of a temptation for us to handle. And, to make matters worse, we have sinned ourselves, just as Adam and Eve did. So, we too must struggle to overcome our tendency to stray from God. Thus, Lent has a triple purpose for us: to give us practice in turning down lawful pleasures in order to prepare us for the day when unlawful ones will come along; to strengthen our will to do good; and to demonstrate solidarity with our Lord in His sacrifice for our redemption.
Please note that our Lord never asks us to do something He has not done Himself. He too fasted for forty days (not an innovation, for we see Moses and Elias doing the same in the Old Testament). Probably His fast was stricter than anything modern man is likely to observe. In the Gospel we see Him led into the desert—Lent must be something of a withdrawal from the world—fewer parties, less noise—a retreat to spiritual things instead. We see that He is led by the Spirit, the Holy Ghost—we must not try to keep Lent alone, for it is only with prayer and meditation and good works, and the Sacraments that we can obtain God’s grace and achieve our goal. We see that He spent forty days in fasting—we should do the same—no cheating!
The Gospel also shows us that Jesus was tempted, perhaps so that we might have His example of how temptation may be overcome. On the part of one who is tempted, the temptation itself is no sin. We only sin when decide to take advantage of something good that is offered to us and use it in an evil way.
He was tempted with physical satisfaction and security: “turn these stones into loaves of bread”; be filled and not hungry. His pride was tempted; He could display His divine kingship to be envied by men as the “angels came to bear Him up so that He would not so much as injure His foot upon a stone.” He was tempted with the riches of the world: “all of these things I will give You if you will just fall down and worship the devil in place of God.”
We can learn from our Lord’s example: We can learn self denial, and thus avoid our own temptations. We can learn to do good, even when no one is watching and there is no fame or glory to be gained. By developing habits of prayer we can draw close to God so that the devil can never come between us. In a word, we can learn to be “Christ-like.”
Parenthetically, let me draw your attention to the fact that the devil was tempting Jesus with borrowed goods. That is the game he must always play, for the devil has nothing of his own! Every thing in creation was made by God out of nothing; every thing in creation is good; it is only when we are fooled into misusing it that we sin; only when we are foolish enough to believe that the devil has something to give us which God does not!
Saint Paul tells us that, “Now is the acceptable time; now is the day of salvation.” We need to resolve—each and every one of us—to take advantage of the opportunity God gives us once again. (Some Lent, some day, will be our last such opportunity—hopefully, not this Lent, but possibly so.) Now is the acceptable time to draw close to God; to unite with Him in a symbolic sense as we prepare to reenact the drama of our Redemption in the events of Lent, Holy Week, and Easter; to unite with Him in the real sense through prayer and the Sacraments frequently during this holy season of Lent.
Now is the acceptable time!!