I mentioned a few weeks ago that we men tend to plan in the indefinite future, and that we sometimes require someone else to pull us back into the reality of the hear-and-now. Well. today it is the Church, speaking through the Apostle Paul, that is trying to remind us that the season of Lent is now fully upon us. We've had three Sundays, up till now, to do our "indefinite future planning" -- three Sundays in purple to remind us that it would soon be Lent -- and now it is here.
If you have been around for any length of time you probably know that about halfway through Lent we will have a Sunday with rose colored vestments, and that I will tell you that it would be a good time to get going on your lenten efforts if you have not already done so -- and that you will probably hear the same thing at Palm Sunday, just one week before Easter. But, if we are honest with ourselves, we know that such brief "crash courses" in the spiritual life are ineffective. The whole purpose of Lent is to develop good habits of holiness that will last at least until the following year -- and good habits take time to develop -- so "now is the acceptable time" to get down to your lenten observance.
Remember that Lent is not just giving things up. It should be a time for renewed prayer and spiritual reading and reflection -- frequent Mass attendance, reception of the Sacraments, the Stations of the Cross, the Rosary, and so on. It should be a time for increased good works -- the spiritual and corporal works of mercy, especially. And, of course, it should be a time of moderation in food and drink and entertainment.
But, above all, a good Lent must be centered around the attempt to live in the continual presence of God -- bringing Him and holy things to mind often -- and remaining continuously in the state of sanctifying grace; avoiding sin and the occasions of sin.
The Gospel today is meant to be an instruction on living that life of sanctifying grace. The Church proposes the example of our Lord to us today for our imitation and instruction. Perhaps we are surprised by the theme: Jesus is led into the desert to be tempted by the devil.2 "How can Jesus be tempted?" some will ask -- "aren't temptations sinful?" Well, obviously, they are not in themselves sinful, not if the Son of God can be tempted -- but understanding why is an essential part of living this life of sanctifying grace.
To understand the mechanics of temptation, we need to digress a step or two. That we can be tempted at all is because we human beings have "appetites"-- and we have these "appetites" because we are partly material creatures, possessing bodies in addition to our souls. Material bodies require certain physical things in order to survive, to be healthy, and to prosper -- both as individuals, and as a race. In order to insure that we partake of the things we need, God has made them pleasant or even compelling in our estimation. We probably wouldn't eat much if food had no taste -- we would soon be extinct if there wwere no pleasures in the begetting and the raising of our children -- we might not even think to breathe if we had no craving for the air.
By the same token, there are things that we must avoid, and God has given us "aversions" to those things. It is no coincidence that evil smelling things are often bad for us; or that senseless violence or vulgarity are offensive to us, even to the point of making us angry.
Both the appetites and the aversions are part of our nature. They are all "good" in the sense that they are necessary for our material survival and well-being. We cannot claim any praise for having them, nor any blame, for they are part of the way God made us, and not any of our own doing. They are simply the innate tendencies to seek what is good and necessary for us, and to avoid what is bad and harmful.
But sometimes we are tempted to follow our appetites or our aversions to an inordinate degree. We must eat to survive, and doing so is good. The food is certainly not evil. But sometimes we fail to control our appetite with the reasoning powers God has given us. A balanced diet is fine, including a treat now and then -- but most of us know that we should not have that fourth helping of mashed potatoes, that third glass of wine, or that second piece of cheese cake with the blueberries on it -- and that even if we forego the potatoes and the wine, we still ought not dine exclusively on cheesecake. With this example of food, we see that we "sin against nutrition" either by quantity or by quality; by eating too much, or by eating the wrong things. And that "sin against nutrition" can even become a sin against God if we allow it to advance to gluttony and become damaging.
Likewise, it might be appropriate to become angry when we see our neighbor kicking his dog or yelling at his wife. That sort of aversion is beneficial, for it helps us to keep society running morally. But it too has its limits: our anger gives us no right to go about gossiping about him, or to stew about it until we become inflamed and resort to unnecessary violence. Again, our intellect must exercise some reason.
But, notice, that the temptations are not evil in themselves. I may really crave that cheese cake -- maybe even to the point that my mouth waters -- and I may really want to punch that neighbor in his nose. But if I control the temptation and do what is reasonable, there is no sin involved. To put it another way, temptations draw us to act in an excessive or inordinate manner -- to over-respond to an appetite or an aversion -- and the only sin involved occurs when we do over-respond. The appetite or the aversion is not bad, and not even the temptation. Indeed, if we react properly to temptation -- if we respond in a properly reasoned fashion -- it may be a source of merit.
So today we mark the first Sunday of this Lent, hopefully a journey that will bring all of us closer to God -- and we begin with a thought that will indeed make us more holy if we follow the example of our Lord, responding to the pleasures and the pains of life in a reasonable manner, consistent with our state in life.
"Blessed is the man found without fault.... this remains his glory forever; that he could have sinned but did not; that he could have done evil but would not."3