Preparing for Lent
“The Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness” (Mark 1:1-2). Not long after the Holy Spirit anointed Christ at his baptism, that same Holy Spirit led him into the desert for forty days and nights of prayer and fasting. This is the first effect of the Holy Spirit after Christ’s baptism. Lent is coming soon. March 6 will be Ash Wednesday, beginning our time of prayer and penance, our getting in touch with the grace of our Baptism. It’s also a time when catechumens are preparing themselves for Baptism, and some of the baptized are preparing for their Confirmation and full reception into the Church.
This Lent, the Holy Spirit wants to lead us – like Christ – into the desert of fasting and prayer. Of course, we cannot precisely imitate Christ in the desert. He imposed a superhuman fast upon Himself. Christ confronted Satan – and repudiated him – in the desert on our behalf. Where Adam and Eve failed, Christ the New Adam succeeded. And in his fasting and rebuking of Satan, he did something that we, in our weakness, could not do. However, now that we have been baptized into Christ and have received the Holy Spirit, we are privileged to join Christ in his act of saving the world from its sins. This Lent, he wants us to share in his fasting and his repudiation of Satan. Though our fasting and penance will be, of course, a lot less than his, it should nonetheless be something that tests our virtue and strengthens our love for Christ.
To be sure, you are not undertaking fasting and prayer with Jesus’ innocence, but with the corruption of original and personal sin. Fasting and prayer should not, for us, be a contest of endurance. Nor should it be something that causes us to focus on ourselves too much. But rather, our fasting and prayer should be something that purifies our desires and purges selfishness and willfulness. During Lent, our desires and our will should become more and more oriented toward generosity and love of God and neighbor. We should become more docile to grace. Less headstrong.
The Gospel says that when Jesus was in the desert, he was “among wild beasts.” Jesus dealt with wild beasts that were outside himself. But we have to deal with “wild beasts” that are within. We deal with the beasts of the Seven Capital Sins: Pride, Envy, Wrath, Greed, Lust, Gluttony and Sloth. And it is these beasts – these inner tendencies – that can make it difficult to combat the beasts outside of ourselves: the world and the devil.
In his temptation, the Christ who is anointed by the Holy Spirit overcomes the flesh by refusing Satan’s offer to “turn these stones into bread.” He overcomes the world by refusing Satan’s offer for all the world’s kingdoms and wealth. And he overcomes Satan himself by refusing to test God by throwing himself off of the Temple’s parapet.
But we, unlike Christ, have our own weaknesses to contend with. We may have memories and hurts that have to be healed. We have emotional attachments that need to be purified, impulses that need to be mastered. And sometimes, the closer we get to God, to more intense our temptations become. It is not uncommon that those who are most pure are often subject to the most difficult temptations and emotional attachments. If you enter into a serious fast, you may experience your weaknesses with a greater intensity.
So what must you do? Humbly persevere in prayer and hold your peace. Trust God completely. To resist all of the impulses of human weakness requires a greater act of Faith, Hope and Love on your part. This kind of trial – the weight of human weakness falling upon your soul – is a penance in itself. Many great saints and holy souls have passed through such trials. And it is a fruitful stage of your spiritual growth if you come to an impasse, in which God seems absent and your weaknesses seems to overtake you. This experience, if you accept it in calm and humility, will purify your Hope and Trust in God. This in turn will prepare you for the perfection of divine Love and the experience of contemplation. Satan will lose his match with you, if you humbly admit your weakness, remember that you are flesh and blood (and not an angel), and that “you are going to God on foot” and not on angel’s wings.
Throughout the Bible, fleeing to the desert is what holy people do for a while in order to prepare for the mission and purpose that God has given them. Moses and Elijah passed time in the desert before fulfilling their missions. Likewise, John the Baptist and Jesus. Jesus returned to the wilderness often, and prayed all night before appointing his Twelve Apostles. Likewise St. Paul, who – after his vision of Christ – fled to the wilderness for three years before visiting Peter and beginning his mission. And St. John was in the wilderness on the Isle of Patmos when God revealed the great apocalyptic vision. The Book of Revelation also says that, when the Church is pursued by Satan, she takes refuge in the desert before fulfilling her mission. Even the baby Jesus was taken to the desert by St. Joseph in order to flee the persecutions of King Herod. The wilderness is a solemn place, though austere. The prophet Hosea hears God’s voice say to his beloved spouse, Israel: “I will allure her; I will lead her into the desert and speak tenderly to her heart” (Hos. 2:16). And again, God says: “Like finding grapes in the desert, I have found Israel” (Hos. 9:10). So likewise, the Holy Spirit invites us to the wilderness to “speak tenderly to our hearts,” and find us sweetly available to him, “like grapes in the desert.”
And for us, what is this wilderness? It is the wilderness of fasting and prayer. It is the wilderness of solitude with God. It is the desert of Lent. And it is an absolutely fruitful and life-giving desert if we are willing deny ourselves for the sake of following Christ.
And finally, I’d like to point out, that Lent also reminds us – and prepares us – for the End of Time. As Christ’s life and death prepared him for his Resurrection, so the disciplines of Lent prepare us for our own resurrection at the Last Judgment. During this holy season, allow the Holy Spirit to lead you into the desert of fasting and prayer, so that he may enkindle the divine flame of Love in your hearts, and make you attentive and watchful for the coming of Christ.
To prepare ourselves for Lent, I offer you this bit of wisdom and insight – the fruit of contemplating Christ – by Pope St. Leo the Great. This great Father of the Church has left us words to “ponder within our hearts,” as we prepare for the wilderness.
Fr. Frederick Edlefsen, Pastor
A Sermon by Saint Leo the Great, Pope (440-461 A.D.)
Dear friends, at every moment the earth is full of the mercy of God, and nature itself is a lesson for all the faithful in the worship of God. The heavens, the sea and all that is in them bear witness to the goodness and omnipotence of their Creator, and the marvelous beauty of the elements as they obey him demands from the intelligent creation a fitting expression of its gratitude.
But with the return of that season marked out in a special way by the mystery of our redemption, and of the days that lead up to the paschal feast, we are summoned more urgently to prepare ourselves by a purification of spirit.
The special note of the paschal feast is this: the whole Church rejoices in the forgiveness of sins. It rejoices in the forgiveness not only of those who are then reborn in holy baptism but also of those who are already numbered among God's adopted children.
Initially, men are made new by the rebirth of baptism. Yet there still is required a daily renewal to repair the shortcomings of our mortal nature, and whatever degree of progress has been made there is no one who should not be more advanced. All must therefore strive to ensure that on the day of redemption no one may be found in the sins of his former life.
Dear friends, what the Christian should be doing at all times should be done now with greater care and devotion, so that the Lenten fast enjoined by the apostles may be fulfilled, not simply by abstinence from food but above all by the renunciation of sin.
There is no more profitable practice as a companion to holy and spiritual fasting than that of almsgiving. This embraces under the single name of mercy many excellent works of devotion, so that the good intentions of all the faithful may be of equal value, even where their means are not. The love that we owe both God and man is always free from any obstacle that would prevent us from having a good intention. The angels sang: Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth. The person who shows love and compassion to those in any kind of affliction is blessed, not only with the virtue of good will but also with the gift of peace.
The works of mercy are innumerable. Their very variety brings this advantage to those who are true Christians, that in the matter of almsgiving not only the rich and affluent but also those of average means and the poor are able to play their part. Those who are unequal in their capacity to give can be equal in the love within their hearts.