A few days ago we began our observance of Lent. Our heads were marked with ashes as the words “Repent and believe in the Gospel” were pronounced (or the other formula “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return”).
The call to repentance echoes Jesus’ words as he proclaims the Kingdom of God. The time of Lent is a time for renewal, and renewal begins with repentance.
Jesus calls us to greatness. Not as the world sees greatness but as God sees greatness — which lies in goodness. He wants us to be good, loving and merciful.
Some Christians might hear that and think of a checklist and say, “I am good;” “I am loving;” and “I am merciful” — “end of story.” This is not the mentality that Jesus has in mind when he calls us to repentance.
Repentance is an ongoing activity whereby we turn our lives, all aspects of our lives, to Christ and allow his light to lead us to something better. At the basis of repentance is humility. We realize we are not perfect and that we have faults and weaknesses that hinder us from growth in goodness, love and mercy. The season of Lent is a period of time when we take the time to identify these and with God’s grace to overcome them as we move toward Easter.
The collect (formerly termed “Opening Prayer”) for the Ash Wednesday liturgy reads: “Grant, O Lord, that we may begin with holy fasting this campaign of Christian service, so that, as we take up battle against spiritual evils, we may be armed with weapons of self-restraint. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.”
The prayer is cast in military language – that of a battle – a battle against evil. The weapon for this battle is “self-restraint.”
The Gospel passage for this Sunday illustrates this prayer in a poignant and powerful way. Jesus is the living embodiment of this prayer. He goes to the desert and fasts for 40 days and nights. Only after this period of preparation is he ready for the confrontation with the devil. Satan, clever as he was with Adam, comes to Jesus in a moment of weakness. Jesus has not had any food or drink so, as the Gospel relates, “he was hungry.” It is through his weakness that he finds strength, not in the body but in the spirit.
He is tempted three times by the devil. First, he attempts to have Jesus prove himself. Through this he tries to instill doubt in Jesus. “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become bread.” Jesus answers this temptation with the word of God: “One does not live on bread alone.” Second, the devil tempts Jesus with power and glory if Jesus would only worship him. Jesus again answers with the word of God: “You shall worship the Lord, you God, and him alone shall you serve.” The third temptation is to have Jesus prove his relationship with the Father by putting himself in harm’s way to see if God will save him. Jesus again answers him with scripture: “You shall not put the Lord, you God, to the test.”
Jesus was prepared for the temptations and was thus able to resist them. The season of Lent is our time to go to the desert to be fortified for living good, loving and merciful lives. The desert is not a physical place but a spiritual one. We get there through prayer, fasting and almsgiving.
These three together are sometimes referred to the “discipline” of Lent. Each one is valuable but all three together are powerful ways to strengthen our resolve and commitment to God and His Gospel. The word “discipline” has a negative connotation in everyday use. But if we recover the origins of the word – that of “learning” – it might bear more fruit in our endeavor.
What are the things that we learn through prayer, fasting and almsgiving? There are many. One example might be that we learn how to depend more on God than on ourselves. Or putting it another way, perhaps we will learn in new ways that God is the center of our lives, not ourselves.
Another thing we might learn is that God provides for us in ways we might never have imagined on our own. Another might be that he loves us with so great a love that we have an innate need to share that love, and mercy, with those around us regardless of their situation in life. There are many more, the possibilities are indeed endless. The “discipline” then helps us to be, in the words of the Ash Wednesday collect, “armed with the weapons of self-restraint.”
At the end of Jesus’ encounter with the devil, the evangelist tells us, “When the devil had finished every temptation, he departed from him for a time.” He will be back because Jesus’ story is not over; in one way it is just beginning.
In our lives there are many temptations to lead us away from God and from his way. The faithful observance of Lent helps to strengthen us for these temptations and leads us further into the mystery of his goodness, his love and his mercy.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.
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