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 Spirit led him into the desert for forty days and nights of prayer and fasting. This is the Holy Spirit’s first work in his Anointed One. Lent is a week and a half away. Ash Wednesday is on February 26. You, too, will be led by the Spirit into the desert of prayer and fasting. Lent is also an occasion to repudiate Satan, as your parents and godparents did on your behalf when you were baptized. The Spirit invites you to enter more deeply into the grace of your baptism. Lent is also a time when adult catechumens prepare themselves for Baptism, and others prepare to complete their Baptism in Confirmation and full reception into the Catholic Church.
Of course, you cannot precisely imitate Christ in the desert. He imposed a superhuman fast upon Himself. Christ confronted Satan – and repudiated him – in the desert on your behalf. Where Adam and Eve failed, Christ the New Adam succeeded. In his fast and rebuke of Satan, Christ did something that you, in your weakness, cannot do without him. However, now that you’ve been baptized and have received the Holy Spirit, you are privileged to partake in his mission to save the world from its sins. This Lent, he wants you to play your part more readily. Though your fasting and penance will be far less than his, it should nonetheless test your virtue and strengthen your love for your Master. Get in touch with your complete dependence on him. “Without me, you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
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 be a contest of endurance. It shouldn’t cause you to focus on yourself too much. Rather, your fasting and prayer should purify your desires and purge your willfulness. Even your most noble desires and aspirations need to be purified, as there is no guarantee that these are from God. During Lent, your desires and your will should become more and more oriented toward an acceptance of Providence and a love of God and neighbor – on God’s terms, not yours. You should be more docile to grace, less headstrong. You should starve your inclination to control matters that are not your province.
The Gospel says that when Jesus was in the desert, he was “among wild beasts.” Those wild beasts were outside of him. But you must deal with “wild beasts” within. You must acknowledge the beasts of the Seven Capital Sins: Pride, Envy, Wrath, Greed, Lust, Gluttony and Sloth. These beasts – these inner tendencies which can often be quite violent – make it difficult to combat the beasts outside yourself: the world and the devil. However, “with God, all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26).
In his temptation, the Christ overcomes the flesh by refusing Satan’s offer to “turn these stones into bread.” He overcomes the world by refusing Satan’s offer of all the world’s kingdoms and wealth. He overcomes Satan himself by refusing to test God by throwing himself off the Temple’s parapet.
But you, unlike Christ, have your own weaknesses to contend with. You must overcome yourself. You may have memories and hurts that need healing. You may have emotional attachments that need purification and impulses that need mastery. The closer you get to God, to more intense and apparent your temptations might become. It’s not uncommon that the purest souls are subject to the most difficult temptations and emotional attachments. Purity reveals what is hidden. When you fast, you may experience your weaknesses with a greater intensity.
So, what must you do? Humbly persevere in prayer. Hold your peace. Trust God completely. Resisting the impulses of your weaknesses 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 most fruitful penance in itself. Many great saints and holy souls have passed through such trials. If you come to an impasse, in which God seems absent and your weaknesses seems to overtake you, be assured that this is a most fruitful passageway in your spiritual growth. If you accept this experience in calm and humility, it will purify your hope and trust in God. This in turn will prepare you for the perfection of divine Love and the sweet gift of contemplation. Satan will lose his match, if you humbly admit your weakness, remember that you are flesh and blood – 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 a God-given mission. Moses, Elijah and John the Baptist – and Jesus – passed time in the desert before fulfilling their missions. 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. St. John the Apostle 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 conquering him. Even the baby Jesus was taken to the desert by St. Joseph in order to flee 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” (Hosea 2:16). And again, God says: “Like finding grapes in the desert, I have found Israel” (Hosea 9:10). So likewise, Holy Spirit invites you to the wilderness to “speak tenderly to your heart.” Make yourself available to him, “like grapes in the desert.”
What is this wilderness, for you? It is the wilderness of prayer, self-denial and solitude with God. It is the wilderness of persevering in the trials that life has set before you. It’s the desert of Lent. It is an absolutely fruitful and life-giving desert if you willingly deny yourself for the sake of following Christ.
Lent also reminds us – and prepares us – for the End of Time. Christ’s life and death prepared him for his Resurrection. So too, the disciplines of Lent will prepare you for your 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 heart, and make you attentive and watchful for Christ’s coming.
As a reflection on the purification of the heart, I offer you these words by Pope St. Leo the Great, to “ponder within your hearts,” as you prepare for the wilderness.
A Sermon by St. Leo the Great, Pope (5th century)
Purification of spirit through fasting and almsgiving
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.