(See the readings for the First Sunday of Lent, March 6)
Lent, this year, comes in a time of tribulation. The people of Ukraine are being attacked by an unjust aggressor state. We see the images on the television and in the news. We praise their resilience and determination as they defend their families, homes and land against an overwhelming force. The peoples of that region and the world, ourselves included, worry about what is next. These are dangerous days.
Pope Francis urged our Lenten fasting on Ash Wednesday as an opportunity to offer that penance for peace in Ukraine and for the Ukrainian people.
The fasting we embrace during Lent along with the practice of prayer and almsgiving are means to strengthen our faith and resolve. They help us to build our inner strength to confront the forces in our lives that would break us down, lead us astray or disrupt our peace. They help us build our trust in the Lord and to have our faith in him as the bedrock of our lives.
Our period of Lent in preparation for Easter is modeled after Jesus’ 40 days in the desert prior to beginning his public ministry. The 40 days also reflect the 40 years that Israel wandered in the desert before entering the promised land. When Jesus was in the desert, he fasted. As he fasted, he became hungry. At the end of this period, Satan approached and tempted him.
Jesus, though weak in body, was strong in spirit. During the time of prayer and fasting, he was fortified for what lay ahead. He receives his strength through his faith in the Father.
Three times the devil tries to break Jesus. He is cunning in his approach. He knows Jesus is hungry. This is a weak spot, so he begins there. He tempts him with pride – prove yourself – “if you are the Son of God command these stones to become bread.” Jesus responds quoting from Scripture: “One does not live on bread alone” which continues “but every word from the mouth of God.” Jesus’ strength lies in his faith.
The devil then cunningly tries to tempt him with “power and glory.” Jesus again quotes from the Word of God: “You shall worship the Lord, your God, and him alone shall you serve.” Finally, he tempts him again to prove himself, this time related to his faith in the Father. He tempts him to test that faith instead of relying on it: “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here (high on the parapet of the Temple).”
This time the devil also uses the Scriptures, trying to corrupt the Word of God saying: “It is written: ‘He will command his angels concerning you…’” Jesus rebukes the temptation saying, once again quoting Scripture, “You shall not put the Lord, you God, to the test.”
Satan fails. Jesus, weak in body, strong in spirit, triumphs. St. Luke gives us an interesting insight as he recalls the temptations. At the end he says that Satan “departed from him for a time.” Satan seeks to destroy the life-giving relationship that Jesus has with the Father. He seeks to destroy our share in that relationship through Jesus.
St. Luke’s words particularly point ahead to the end of the public ministry – to Jesus’ passion, death and ultimately resurrection. Satan will try to stop Jesus but will not be able. Jesus’ faith in the Father continues to grow, stronger and stronger, as the years go by. This strength in humility fortifies him to endure his passion and death in confidence that the Father will raise him on the third day.
The Ukrainian crisis is a harsh and cruel reminder that evil exists in our world. The confrontation with evil entails a struggle. Jesus shows us that faith in our heavenly Father is the most powerful means by which to endure the struggle so as to persevere to the end. Faith is strengthened through our Lenten observances of prayer, fasting and almsgiving.
As we embrace these spiritual exercises we may be, and probably will be, tempted: something more pressing might come up, we might get hungry, we might get a craving or desire for a particular food we gave up, we might be distracted, we might be confronted with fear, we might become anxious. The more we can stick with the practice, the more that inner strength, our faith in God our heavenly Father, will be fortified.
Our practices might not seem anything significant compared to what Jesus faced, or to what the Ukrainians are enduring now. However, overcoming the small temptations in life help us prepare for the larger ones.
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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