(Matthew 4:1-11) Every year around this time, the Church goes on a 40-day spiritual retreat that we call Lent. It’s a time of repentance and penance – a kind of ‘spring cleaning’ – that helps us to prepare for the coming of Easter. During Lent, we devote more time to prayer, penance, sacrifice, and good works. We practice abstinence – which means that we don’t eat meat – on Fridays.1 And we also fast – which means that we have only one full meal a day plus two small meals that together are less than the main meal – on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.2
When we do this, we imitate the example of our Lord, who also needed a time of preparation for His ministry. The Gospel tells us that the Spirit led Jesus out into the wilderness where He fasted for forty days and forty nights. It was then that the devil came to tempt Him. Now the devil chose the moment of Jesus’ greatest physical weakness – Scripture tells us that Jesus was hungry – because he thought it would be the most likely moment for Jesus to fall. But Jesus’ days of fasting and prayer had actually had the opposite effect. They had strengthened Him spiritually and given Him greater resolve. Jesus had drawn closer to God by turning away from the world. He had been given the strength that He needed in order to embark on His mission. Jesus was not a prisoner to His physical needs, whims, or impulses. He was ready when Satan came calling.
In a similar way, when we ‘give up’ something during Lent – maybe a basic need, such as food when we fast, or even something that has become a bad habit – we don’t do it in order to weaken our bodies or to punish ourselves. We do it in order to develop self-discipline, to build character, and to help us go deeper in our prayer lives. We want to have the strength to keep our sensual needs and impulses where they belong – at the service of our intellects and wills. We want to prevent them from becoming tyrants that drive our every action, inordinate desires that will only bring about our downfall. Making sacrifices helps us to cleanse ourselves of our weaknesses and sins. It puts us in a frame of mind where we can truly appreciate the enormous sacrifice that Jesus made in voluntarily dying for us on the Cross. It helps us to say “no” to temptation when Satan comes calling – and to say “yes” to Jesus.
Lent is kind of like our annual ‘spring cleaning’ – an opportunity to empty ourselves of those things that stand between the Lord and us. It’s a chance to rid ourselves of bad habits and clean the windows of our soul so the light of Jesus can shine more clearly in us. But we must never forget that Lent is not about the journey; it’s about the destination. It’s about being ready to meet our Lord on the day of His rising, and about our hope that one day we will be with Him in eternity.
– Sharon van der Sloot
1 The requirement to abstain from meat – which includes any beef, pork, chicken, or fowl – applies to all Catholics age 14 and older.
2 Fasting applies to all Catholics ages 18 to 59. No snacks are allowed. Apart from those outside of the age limits, certain people may be excused from fast or abstinence, including the sick, the frail, and pregnant or nursing women according to their need for nourishment.