By LORRAINE V. MURRAY, Commentary | Published March 22, 2023
What is Lent all about at heart? Yes, we fast and pray and give alms, but unless we have a deeper change, these sacrifices can become meaningless. Fasting can morph into another diet, prayer can become mechanical, and donating to charity might be done begrudgingly.
St. John Chrysostom wrote: “Do not say to me ‘I fasted for so many days,’ that ‘I did not eat this,’ that ‘I did not drink wine,’ that ‘I endured want,’ but show me if you—from an angry man—have become gentle, if you—from a cruel man—have become benevolent. If you are filled with anger, why oppress your flesh? If hatred and avarice are within you, of what benefit is it that you drink (only) water? Do not show forth a useless fast: for fasting alone does not ascend to heaven.”
It seems the deepest part of Lent is following Jesus more closely, which means praying we’ll be transformed in ways that continue after Easter. But beware, because Satan hates anything connecting us with God and will set traps for us.
One way to follow Jesus is by examining our consciences about luxuries. Jesus and the apostles lived a bare-bones, simple existence. When he cooked breakfast after the Resurrection, the meal consisted of bread and fish. When Jesus was sending out the apostles to preach, he told them to take nothing except a walking stick. Multiple times, Jesus warned people riches could make it difficult to reach heaven.
It’s easy to believe luxuries are necessities, because we grow so accustomed to them. As for me, I know the thermostat is set too high in the winter, but it seems like a huge sacrifice to be cold–until I think about people in Ukraine, who are living in tents, and those in Syria and Turkey, who lost everything in the earthquake.
My prayer during Lent is to recognize how comfortable my life is, and then to trim back the excesses. Sometimes this is fairly easy, like having a grilled-cheese sandwich for supper, instead of something more elaborate. Other times, it takes real willpower to refrain from buying clothing to stuff into my already full closet.
Second, we can imitate Christ by cherishing the time he’s given us. When we read the Gospels, it’s clear Jesus was extremely busy. He spent his time teaching, traveling from town to town, and healing people. Crowds followed him wherever he went, even when he escaped to quiet places to pray.
We can limit the use of technology that wastes our time. In the evenings, I often watch videos as an escape from loneliness, although some of the stuff I watch seems like a descent into mindlessness. Some mornings I get lost in the maze of social media, while nearby a stack of books awaits my attention.
Third, we imitate Christ when we put other people first. Father Gerald Vann in “The Pain of Christ and the Sorrow of God” suggests we can follow Christ by choosing love over selfishness. We do this whenever we let someone at the grocery store go ahead of us. Whenever we listen to a friend who is suffering. Whenever we give money to charity, rather than splurging on ourselves. This is an ongoing battle for me, but I remind myself Jesus fell three times, and pray for his help each time I fall.
Satan will set traps for us by whispering we deserve to treat ourselves to an endless range of expensive items. He’ll urge us to spend more time staring at our phones, whether we’re playing games or scrolling through posts. He’ll encourage us to think of ourselves first.
As we approach Holy Week, we can expect the devil’s temptations to increase. St. Paul’s advice is helpful: “Put on the full armor of God, so you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. Our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness, with the evil spirits in the heavens (Eph 6:11-12).”
We can fend off these dark spirits by attending Mass and praying throughout the day. Keep in mind that after the devil’s temptations in the desert failed, he went away, and angels ministered to Jesus. Let’s hope they will also minister to us, as we follow ever more closely in the footsteps of Christ.