SFX Bulletin, 22 February 2015 Has the Church always celebrated Lent? What exactly is this 40-day period of fasting, prayer and almsgiving (or similar works of sacrifice and love) supposed to lead to?
The word Lent itself simply means “Spring” or “March” in Anglo-Saxon. It refers to the time of the year when the Lent-Easter season usually occurs. The earliest reference to Lent is in a letter from St. Ireneaus (d.203) to Pope St. Victor I about Easter, “The dispute is not only about the day, but also about the actual character of the fast. Some think that they ought to fast for one day, some for two…some make their 'day' last 40 hours on end.” (Eusebius, History of the Church, v24). By the 4th century, the 40-day period of fasting had become the norm as preparation for Holy Week and Easter. Nevertheless, the number “40” is not to be taken literally. It symbolizes a long time of testing or trial as in the long period that Israel wandered in the desert before entering the Promised Land (40 years) or Jesus’ time in the desert (40 days) - which is our gospel text for today.
Mark’s gospel does not tell us how Jesus was tempted but says that “the angels looked after him” (Mk.1:13). We, too, are never alone, “Beside each believer stands an angel as protector and shepherd leading him to life” (St. Basil, CCC336).
Satan is always trying to tempt us away from our blessed life in God. Jesus’ three temptations reflect the very areas in which we are constantly tempted – material needs or wants (turn stones to bread), proving the truth of our faith (“if you are the Son of God, throw yourself down” Mt.4:6) and trading away faith in God for greater personal influence and power (“having all the kingdoms of the world” Mt.4:18). On temptations, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI says, “At the heart of all temptations ... is the act of pushing God aside because we perceive him as secondary, if not actually superfluous and annoying, in comparison with all the apparently far more urgent matters that fill our lives" (Jesus of Nazareth, p28). The Catechism expresses this in another way, “Satan tempts Jesus three times, seeking to compromise his filial attitude to God” (CCC538).
Jesus rebuffed Satan by affirming his filial trust in God – God’s children live by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God, do not put God to the test and worship and serve only God (cf. Mt.4:4,7,10). For us, this implies making time for the prayerful reading and study of God’s Word. Together with an examination of conscience, we humbly seek forgiveness for preferring to go our own way rather than follow God’s plan.
Jesus’ refusal to be tempted has a salvific meaning, “Jesus…recapitulates the temptation of Adam in Paradise and of Israel in the desert…Jesus is the new Adam who remained faithful just where the first Adam had given in to temptation…In this, Jesus is the devil’s conqueror: he ‘binds the strong man’ to take back his plunder” (CCC538-539).
This ‘plunder’ is man who has been held captive through the first sin of “disobedience toward God and lack of trust in his goodness” (CCC397). Jesus offers us the way back to God as today’s 2nd reading tells us, “In the body, (Jesus) was put to death, in the spirit he was raised to life, and, in the spirit, he went to preach to the spirits in prison” – these are the spirits who “refused to believe…when God was still waiting patiently…when Noah was still building that ark” (1 Pt. 3:19-20). God never forgets man – even those in pre-history who missed Noah’s boat! May a deeper prayer life this Lent lead us into a renewed realization of how our own self-sufficiency can be a denial of God’s providence. In repentance, may we welcome anew God’s grace through his angels, his saints and most especially his Son, Jesus - to help us live the fullness of divine life by offering all that we say and do towards worshipping and serving God alone.