When various challenges arise in our daily life, there is an innate drive in human nature to confront the challenge, battle fiercely, and win. All sporting events reveal this powerful drive in athletes, academic competitions reveal this in those who compete on an intellectual level, those with illnesses often fight hard to beat the sickness (my aunt Kay fought bravely against lung cancer and won, even though she died a couple years later from the effects of all the treatments; I miss you dearly, Auntie Kay), and we confront many other types of battles each day, but often we forget about the most important battle of them all, the one waged on the spiritual level. Each year, Lent gives us the focused opportunity to engage in this battle, the battle for our souls, by recognizing our own weaknesses and failings, and turning back to the Lord with our whole heart.
Lent is the liturgical season of penance from Ash Wednesday (February 14, 2018) to the Sacred Paschal Triduum (the celebration of Mass of the Lord’s Supper on the evening of March 29, through the liturgical service of Good Friday in commemoration of Jesus’ death on the Cross, to the ultimate triumph of God over Satan through the Resurrection celebrated during the night of Holy Saturday on March 31 through April 1, Easter Sunday). Lent is a period of 40 days in which the Church and all the members of the Body of Christ, solemnly unite themselves to the mystery of Jesus’ own temptation by Satan in the desert before he began his public ministry (Matthew 4:1-11, Mark 1:12-14, Luke 4:1-13). This is crucially important because this event relates how Jesus, the Divine Son of God, truly descended into human nature, experienced everything in human nature except sin, and by becoming fully human, Jesus was to redeem it through his Passion, death, and resurrection. Jesus can relate to everything we go through, including all the various temptations we are faced with by Satan because He, himself, faced them all: “Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sinning. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:14-16) By joining Jesus in the desert for these 40 days we enter into the battle against Satan with Jesus, who already conquered him, and so we have nothing to fear.
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI remarked that Lent “always involves a battle, a spiritual battle, because the spirit of evil naturally opposes our sanctification and seeks to divert us from the way of God.”¹ Lent, then, is a dedicated time to focus on our relationship with God and fight for it, to battle against the many temptations of the world that demand our attention and attempt to pull us away from Him who truly matters most, God Himself, Jesus Christ. “The tempter is sneaky; he does not go directly to evil, but to a false good, making one believe that the true reality is power and that this meets one’s basic needs,” commented Pope Benedict XVI.² If we lose our focus on God Himself by turning to false goods and by turning to ourselves (committing the sin of pride like Adam and Eve by making ourselves “like” God), then our world will spiral down into selfishness and chaos because God, who is all goodness and truth, is no longer the focus of our lives, but we are along with the idols of this world, which direct us away from Truth and Goodness Himself, Jesus Christ. In the Lenten battle we strive to turn our focus away from ourselves and back to God and also to other people. Pope Francis also commented, “Lent is a favourable season for opening the doors to all those in need and recognizing in them the face of Christ.”³ Lent, then, is the great opportunity each year to battle against the selfishness of concupiscence as we prepare to celebrate the joyous occasion of Easter. Traditionally we fight this battle against Satan during Lent on three fronts: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.
Prayer. Our fight must always begin with prayer. Without a personal and intimate relationship with Jesus Christ through prayer we are bound to lose the battle against our own passions and temptations of the evil one. Prayer is the elevation of the mind and heart to God in praise of his glory; a petition made to God for some desired good, or in thanksgiving for a good received, or in intercession for others before God. Through prayer the Christian experiences a communion with God through Christ in the Church (CCC 2559-2565). Prayer is essentially the living relationship with God, who is a person, and in order to deepen that relationship (just like any relationship!) it requires communication, which is prayer. This must be our foundation in life, within Lent and outside of Lent. Some concrete suggestions could be: going to daily Mass (if you aren’t already), praying the rosary daily, praying the stations of the cross (we do that here at the Cathedral of St. Mary Fridays at 3pm and 7pm during Lent), making a holy hour once a week or daily where you can pray contemplatively and intimately with Jesus.
Fasting. Fasting is a way to sacrifice in order to turn our attention toward God. Fasting is the refraining from food and drink (or other forms of consumption) as an expression of interior penance, in imitation of the fast of Jesus for forty days in the desert. Fasting is an ascetical practice recommended in Scripture and the writings of the Church Fathers (CCC 538, 1434, 2043). Just as fasting before Mass helps us to recognize that we ultimately hunger for God Himself, fasting during Lent helps us to recognize that our deepest longing is for God, not for those things that we usually turn our attention to. Ultimately fasting is a way in which we limit something in our lives that pull our attention away from God. Some concrete suggestions could be: fasting from a favorite food or dessert for the duration of Lent, fasting from technology (social media perhaps or just surfing the internet in general), fasting from a Starbucks latte each day and giving the money that would be used to the poor (both fasting and almsgiving!).
Almsgiving. Almsgiving is the third way in which we learn how to become selfless of heart. Almsgiving is money or goods given to the poor as an act of penance or fraternal charity. Almsgiving, together with prayer and fasting, are traditionally recommended to foster the state of interior penance (CCC 1434; cf. 1969, 2447). Some concrete suggestions could be: setting money aside for various charitable organizations (like Catholic Relief Services), helping right here at the Cathedral of St. Mary by donating food for sack lunches for the poor during the week, volunteering at the St. Joseph’s Food Pantry, donating to Life Choice Pregnancy Care Center, donating and volunteering at COMEA Homeless shelter, donating to Needs, inc., visiting those who are sick in nursing homes and hospitals, visiting with family members whom maybe you haven’t talked to in a while (or write letters! Those are incredibly underutilized in our digital age).
May you all have a blessed Lent this year as you fight the good fight against the evil one and draw ever closer to our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ!