Lent has launched. Beginning with Wednesday’s ashes, this 40-day season is a journey into the heart of our faith. The word “Lent” comes from the word meaning “spring” and, we can expect that if we actively undertake this Lenten journey, we will experience spiritual growth and renewal. This first Sunday of Lent, we follow Christ into the desert where he faces three temptations. Each temptation is powerful precisely because it sparkles with illusions of happiness. The devil beguiles Jesus by appealing to the three P’s: power (jump from temple parapet), pleasure (stones transformed to bread) and possessions (the wealth and magnificence of the nations). Because they are basic human goods, each entices as the source and summit of human happiness.
Jesus responds to each enticement by quoting Scripture, “Man does not live by bread alone but by every Word that come from the mouth of God;” “You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test;” and finally, “Get away, Satan! It is written: ‘The Lord, your God, shall you worship and him alone shall you serve.” As a man, Jesus overcomes the devil’s wiles, not because of miraculous motivation or super strength of will, but because He was empowered by the truth of Scripture.
Jesus went into the desert to pray, fast and open himself to the Father’s will. These three spiritual exercises strengthened Him, so that when temptation came, He responded, not simply with His own desires, but with God’s words. In the face of the temptations of power, pleasure and possessions, Lent gives us the spiritual tools of prayer, fasting and almsgiving as potent resources with which to overcome temptation. Let’s consider how each of these spiritual exercises promotes spiritual health.
Prayer is the foundation of our spiritual life. Without prayer, no spiritual growth is possible. In the Gospel we see that prayer is what shatters the illusion that happiness comes from power. Instead, happiness comes from knowing and doing God’s will, which is discovered through prayer. Prayer is simply talking to God and then quieting ourselves to listen for His response. Though it may seem easy to do in theory, there are few things more difficult than to take time each day for quiet communion with our creator. From the time we wake up until the moment of evening retirement, our days are bursting with the noise of activity and bustle. Yet through it all, God is trying to speak to us. But we cannot hear his voice without taking regular time each day to sit down, quiet our minds and embrace the silence. Lent calls us in a practical way to carve out moments for prayer, to join the community in worship and to enter into the silence where God speaks to our hearts.
Fasting is the act of giving up something in order to develop spiritual discipline. In fact, fasting is so ingrained in the Catholic psyche that Lent has almost become synonymous with it. One main meal on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, Meatless Fridays, no sweets or chocolates: such are traditional fasting practices. By fasting, we overcome the illusion that pleasure can truly bring us lasting happiness. Pleasure is fleeting and, by denying ourselves those comforts that we often mistake for necessities, our heart expands to receive the graces that go beyond our shallow desires. Fasting goes beyond just food and drink. Consider the time and energy we commit each day to TV, the Internet, social media. For example, instead of playing “Words with Friends,” we might take time to pray words from the Scripture.
Almsgiving is the culmination of the Lenten disciplines, for through it we open ourselves up to God’s grace. Just as fasting is about “giving up,” almsgiving is about “giving to.” Whereas fasting is about saying no to ourselves, almsgiving is about saying yes to others. Through almsgiving, we conquer the temptation to seek real happiness in our possessions. Almsgiving most directly applies to giving financial and other material support to those in need, but it can also apply to spiritual needs. For instance, when I asked our elementary children to give an example of almsgiving, one child offered, “I could be kind and share with someone at school who never shares with me.” What if for each of the next six weeks, you chose a family member, coworker or even a stranger and went out of your way to show some act of kindness. It can be as simple as giving a hug, helping with chores, or being mindful to saying thank you!
These 40 days of Lent will be filled with struggles and temptation, yet through prayer, fasting and almsgiving, we anticipate the rich fruit of God’s blessing blossoming in our lives. May this Lent truly be a springtime of grace!
~Fr. Michael Hurley, O.P.