As we celebrate this first Sunday in the season of Lent, most of us as Catholics probably have at least what we think is a good idea of what Lent is about. We are going to fast and do some penance and we’re getting ready for Easter.
But the church tells us later in the liturgy and the prayers that it is Christ’s own temptation (or experience in the desert) that is our model for Lent. I think there’s something about that, that can be quite shocking to us when we think about it. It comes in our first line from the gospel today.
At that time Jesus was led by the spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. During the season of Lent the church is also lured into the desert to be tempted by the devil. I think most of us are prepared to do some sort of amount of fasting or mortification in order to fulfill our obligations for the church in the season of Lent. But are you and I really prepared to be tempted by the devil? Do we realize that this season of lent is a time for God himself who wants that to happen to obtain a good.
That can be a little confusing to us. Most of us know that I’m supposed to avoid near occasions of sin. I’m not only supposed to not tempt the Lord God above, but I should not even place myself in occasions of sin. But fasting, penance, almsgiving these are not occasions of sin even though they are in fact occasions of temptation.
There’s a difference here. When you and I put ourselves in the occasion of sin, that is where we in our pride, and our presumption, will not remove something from our lives that is pretty clear should be removed. We have either through our own natural intuition the grace of God perceived that this might be a dangerous thing for us. Perhaps we have plenty of experience from busting it regarding this occasion of sin. And there should be no room in our minds to think that that doesn’t need to go from our life.
Fasting, penance, the season of Lent, almsgiving, these things be an occasion of temptation is a slightly different reality. It’s one that I don’t think I appreciated until i came across of a homily of blessed John Henry Newman on this subject.
I grew up Protestant so I didn’t grow up Catholic and we didn’t really have an idea of fasting in my particular church. That’s not true of all Protestants but it just wasn’t something that was taught to me. My first experience with fasting and penance was probably a little imprudent. I would basically eat bread and water, but i would eat wonder bread. If I had eaten real bread and water it might have been fine. I had splitting headaches all day and I just felt like locking myself in my apartment and not do anything. I’ll be fine. I’m get real grumpy and irritable and I felt like oh yeah I don’t want to subject other people to this.
It’s true that when we choose penances we don’t want to inflict them on other people. We have to have a certain humility and prudence about what we’re doing. I think I’d let that legitimate concern about not inflicting penances I was choosing on other people filled me with a little bit of fear.
John Henry Newman kind of pierced through that in the shocking way. He said the point of real fasting (not this wimpy fast that you and I do on Ash Wednesday and on Good Friday) is that you are supposed to feel the pain. The whole point is that you voluntarily, for love of God, subject yourself to an increased awareness of bodily weakness. Not so that you can give permission to yourself to snap, and be grumpy at your neighbor and your coworker and your family, but so that you can experience in a more real way how much you and I depend upon God’s grace anyway to not to not snap at our family our friends our neighbor.
The actual weakness that is a natural part of fasting (in its properly understood way) is a mortification of the will. We do well to do penances (like not choosing our preference of food throughout the year), but there is something to fasting proper. There must be a denial of the body for a period of time of what it needs, so that one can come to that deeper truth that begins in a very intense way in our celebration today and comes up a different points in the liturgy. “It is not by bread alone that we live but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”
One of the temptations that you see Satan trying to ensnare our Lord, one of the tactics by which Satan is trying to ensnare our Lord and tempt him in this passage, is getting the Lord (now we don’t know whether by the way Satan knew that this was the Eternal Word of God), but he’s trying to draw Jesus attention to specific words of God to tempt him. “God said this, why can’t you do that.” The Lord very simply and humbly said “it is also written…”
You and I have to be very attentive to the ways in which Satan wrongly tries to draw our attention to one aspect of God’s Word while blinding us and tempting us to neglect another aspect. This is the root of every heresy: Formalized heresy or the little individuals ones that you and I toy with all the time, as we try to do our own will. When we in a lack of humility refuse to hold our attention on the entirety of the Word of God that has been revealed to us through the person of Jesus Christ, and handed down to us faithfully in the teachings of the church, [we are in danger of committing heresy.]
When we pick this and we emphasize that, and we kinda brush that aside, that is not Christ. We must receive him whole and entire. Just like when I break this host in a few moments, I’m not breaking Jesus in half. He is whole and entire in each visible particle of the Blessed Sacrament. That is the only way he wants to give himself to us.
I used to be a formal heretic. I’ll say that it. It’s not politically correct. I didn’t know I was a heretic. But I grew up with a part of the faith. But the truth of the matter was it wasn’t really the full thing. It wasn’t what God had revealed for my salvation or those around me. It wasn’t through my own fault that I was ignorant of that. But my inability to gain access to the fullness of Christ hurt me. I didn’t have the Eucharist. I didn’t have Our Lady. I didn’t have the Sacrament of Reconciliation. I didn’t have the infallible teaching of the church.
Woe to you and I through our own fault, through our own sin, through our own giving into the deceptions and temptations of the evil one. We separate ourselves from the real Christ as he has revealed himself to be, in which he himself firmly promised to protect the church from error until he comes again in glory. That’s on the big level. Theological things that you and I need to be attentive to the way that the the evil one splits us, and separates us, and pulls us away from Christ and each other. But on a smaller more subtle level level, he does this to us all the time. “There’s nothing wrong with eating. Go ahead. Use your miraculous power to turn these stones into bread.” The word of God had commanded. The spirit had driven the Lord out to be tempted and too fast. He knows that food is good. He provides it miraculously for his people later. But that food, the natural food that he’s even willing to perform a miracle for later in the multiplication of the loaves, is still only a sign of that real food. That heavenly bread from heaven is the Word of God that becomes flesh. He now gives himself to us under the appearance of bread and wine in order to prepare us for the heavenly banquet where we will feast upon the divinity of Christ for all eternity.
There is a lot at stake in our willingness to enter into this season of Lent thoughtfully, seriously, humbly, and honestly. We must be attended to the way the Satan will try and rip us away from Christ. Be humble about the fact that in some ways he’s already succeeded. In some ways lent can be a time what we are willing to reexamine ourselves and say, “Lord where am I already separate. Where have I already given into temptation. Where am I not going to even perceive a fight because I gave in long ago with this lie, with this deception, with this bad attitude, with this attitude that seems good but actually isn’t holding intention something else about the scriptures that I know to be true.”
We need not be afraid by the way of this reality. Christ has conquered in us. The only reason that you and I give in to temptation is because we don’t trust God. In that moment, we buy into the deceit and the lie of Satan. Whether it’s like, “Oh, I really do need this food now. God’s not going to provide it. I’ll take it for myself.” Or whether it’s like, “You know what? I am going to harm myself… God loves me. He’ll protect me in the end.”
We can also understand the kingdoms of the world in many ways. I don’t know about you but I’ve never actually desired to rule the world. But I would be perfectly fine if nobody ever messed with me. And I can do what I wanted, and everybody would leave me alone. Which left to its it’s perfect, would be pretty disastrous for everyone. So there’s all kinds of ways that we desire to to rule and can be tempted by the kingdoms of this world.
One of the things that you and I, in a culture where we are basically comfortable, is that we can establish little kingdoms of self-indulgence, and consolation, and comfort that are almost impenetrable to the light of god’s grace. Not because he’s not powerful, but because we are lulled into a sleepy super whereby we don’t even realize that it is not Christ who reigns in our heart but our self. Since we can’t actually reign in our heart, that means that somebody else is reigning. In so many subtle ways bow down and worship the evil because of what he promises us and what he can give us.
You and I as Catholics are so privileged to have the fullness of Christ not only given to us in the teachings of the church, but the fullness of Christ given to us body, blood, soul, and divinity in its entirety each week, each day if we want it, from the sacred altar. We need not fear the lies and deceits of the evil one, but we do have to acknowledge that they’re real, that we have bought into them in varying ways, that he will continue to tempt us to buy into them in various ways; and we must allow the Holy Spirit to drive us, to motivate us, to enliven us, to empower us, at every moment of our life if we are going to experience the true freedom, the fullness of freedom, that Christ has willed from us, as willed for us from the beginning, even before the fall. God did not intend that Adam and Eve give in to sin, but he did intend that they be tempted. Because it is in temptation, it is in trials, that it is proven who we are who we want to be. Not that we can rely on our own strength, but that we in humility rely upon the grace, the strength, the power that God has given us in His Son Jesus Christ